The elusive cat, spotted!
The lesser-known and rarely seen Rusty-spotted cat is found only in the Indian subcontinent. While we only have some sporadic sightings of the secretive cat, our author here presents a brief insight into the cat’s natural history.
It is popular knowledge that India is home to the biggest cat in the world – the tiger. But very few people know that the world’s smallest cat, known as the Rusty-spotted Cat (Prionailurus rubiginosus), can also be found in India. Endemic to India and Sri Lanka, the cat is rare to sight. In 2005, I had found roadkill of a very tiny cat near the famous Ranthambore Tiger Reserve. I was with two experienced wildlife veterans who agreed on the identity of the cat and mentioned that in their five decades of extensive excursions here, had never seen it in the forest. In the last 9-10 years, I have managed to see this elusive cat five times at this same spot; and the last time, I even managed to get a photograph. My guess is that there must be a small population surviving in that particular area. While the tiger can weigh over 300 kgs, this cat weighs no more than 1.5 kg. About 20 years ago, renowned wildlife scientist Dr. AJT Johnsingh had reported the cat from the Gir forest. This sighting report raised the awareness of this species among wildlife enthusiasts as more reports subsequently came from various forests.
The recent sighting was my longest and allowed me to observe some behaviour of the species, too. I was driving from Sawai Madhopur town towards the Ranthambore reserve when I saw two twinkling eyes in the car’s headlight. I turned the car and found the cat atop a Vachellia tree. It climbed down, only to scurry up another Vachellia tree. After a quick scan of the thorny tree, the cat started watching the ground, possibly searching for rodents. It then climbed down the tree and walked off into the bushes.
The cat has a grizzled brownish-grey coat, marked with rust-brown spots. The head is small, rounded, and marked with two white streaks on the inner edges of the eyes. Six dark streaks on each side of the head, extending over the cheeks and forehead complete the facial markings. The legs are short and unmarked, while the tail is long and bushy. The Sri Lankan subspecies (P. r. phillipsi), however, is slightly different from the Indian subspecies (nominate). The cat seemed quite comfortable climbing up and down the thorny trees. The small size also seemed to help the cat navigate in the thickets of spiny bushes. The entire forest patch is full of Vachellia leucophloea trees and about a year ago as well, I had seen the cat on a Vachellia tree. This probably indicates their arboreal nature and use of thorny trees, which other cats like the Jungle cat and the Caracal cannot use in normal situations and is left as an empty ecological niche. This beautiful cat is indeed smaller, but in no way less important in the role, they play in the ecology.
This is a joint Article by Dharmendra and Divya Khandal (Originally Published in SAEVUS Magazine May 2015)
Dharmendra is a Conservation Biologist with Tiger Watch. He is a researcher, monitoring anti-poaching initiatives around Ranthambhore. He is involved in reform programmes for the Mogya, a traditional hunting community. Divya Khandal is an amateur wildlife writer and photographer. She runs Dhonk, a social enterprise, which works with local communities promoting their crafts around Ranthambore National Park.