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Small but significant: Counting India’s elusive small cats

Read time: 3 mins
6 Jul 2020
Small but significant: Counting India’s elusive small cats

Rusty-spotted cat ((Prionailurus rubiginosus) [Image Credits: David V Raju / CC BY-SA]

When one thinks of India’s cats, the charismatic big cats—tigers, snow leopards and lions—steal the thunder. But did you know India is home to fifteen different species of cats? Although multiple studies focus on the big cats, very little is known about India’s smaller cats, despite their large distribution across the subcontinent. Our knowledge of their numbers, preferred habitats, and behaviour are scarce. Elusive beings that they are, with appearances very similar to each other, make it all the more difficult to track and study these felines. While many of them are often found close to dense human settlements, disturbance to their habitats are pushing them on the path of decline.

In a recent study, a team of researchers from the Wildlife Institute of India, Uttarakhand, have conducted the first population and habitat survey of two small cat species in India. They have estimated the densities of the jungle cat (Felis chaus) and the rusty-spotted cat (Prionailurus rubiginosus), both of which are widely distributed across the country. The study was published in the journal PLOS One

“India has one of the highest diversities of small cats in the whole world,” say the authors of the study. These cats, though small, are significant to our ecosystem. “They minimise the loss of grains and restrict the spread of diseases as they prey on rodents,” they add, talking about their importance.

The researchers set up camera traps to capture images of the cats, across different habitats in almost 400 locations in the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra, which has a varied landscape of grasslands, water bodies and different patches of forest cover. Unlike tigers and leopards, these small cats do not have distinct markings or features that are easily distinguished. Hence, they used a mathematical model called the spatial absence-presence (SPA) model. This technique combines data on the locations where individual cats are detected (presence) or not detected (absence) and correlates it with data from nearby places. From this data, one can identify areas where the cats are active and map it out.

The study also collected information on different types of habitats where the cats were found, such as distance to the nearest water body, elevation and forest cover.

“Habitat preference information can aid in delineating critical areas for conservation of the two species”, the authors say, highlighting the significance of this.


Jungle cat (Felis chaus) [Image Credits: L. Shyamal / CC BY-SA]

The researchers found around four jungle cats and six rusty-spotted cats per 100 square kilometres. These numbers are similar to what is known of other Indian small cats across the country as well.

The two species of cats are often considered to share habitats, and there is very little knowledge about the specific habitats in which they are found. The study revealed that jungle cats preferred more arid habitats with sparse forest cover. In contrast, the rusty-spotted cat preferred humid habitats with dense forest cover. The researchers suggest that the rusty-spotted cat’s preference for dense forests may be a strategy to avoid larger predators.

A lack of knowledge on the population trends of small cat species has led to inadequate conservation efforts, which the current study aims to address.

“The population density estimates, from the study, can be used as baseline information necessary for long-term conservation and management of these species”, say the authors.

Besides, the mathematical model used to estimate the numbers in this study can be adapted to count other species where individuals are challenging to tell apart visually. The findings thus pave the way for various avenues in ecological research.

This article has been run past the researchers, whose work is covered, to ensure accuracy.