Big Cats of India
CATS.....scientifically grouped under the family Felidae, have always manage to grab our eyeballs as humans. It is their sheer grace of movements, precarious stealth when they stalk and a royal demeanor of their presence which could be touted to be the reasons for it. Yet for a common man it is a cuddly little purring domesticated animal as opposed to the fact that they are actually classified into about 40 different species genetically displaying a great diversity in their sizes and just one of them is the regularly encountered House Cat.
However in any order of animals when it comes to reputation, size does matter and that’s precisely why the Big Cats, as they are informally referred to, stand out in the Cat Family. In general the group includes Tiger, Lion, Jaguar, Leopard and sometimes the Snow Leopard too, but a more expansive version may also include the Clouded Leopard, the Puma and the Cheetah. However the latter are not true Big Cats due to their inability to roar. The Snow Leopard although cannot roar, genetically belongs to the same genus as the other big cats and hence is a part of this family. India is blessed to house 4 out of these 5 or 3 out of the 4, if one excludes the Snow Leopard owing to its inability to roar, Big Cat species. Whatever the case, our rich biodiversity and geographical distribution of prey species makes it possible for the Tiger, the Lion, the Leopard and the Snow Leopard to survive in our country with just the Jaguar missing from this list as its only found on the South American continent.
A look at the mechanics of a Cat’s body profoundly reveals that every body part of a cat is designed to kill. Talk about the big cats and it gets even better. Clocking speeds of up to 65 km/hr, the big cats have the ability to take down some of the largest prey on the planet. The curbed dagger like claws that expand as they cling on to their prey or the huge canines that are deep rooted into the prey’s neck or throat are just a few noteworthy weapons in their arsenal. But that does not mean they compromise on stealth, literally as silent as a “Cat” they blend in so well in their respective surroundings that the prey sometimes doesn’t even know what hit them. Talk about agility and they showcase some of the most craziest acrobatic skills when going for the prey’s jugular. Their highly acute sensory organs, superb eyesight even at night, a great sense of smell and a very powerful set of ears, enable them to locate and track their quarry from mind boggling distances. However the ace up their sleeve are their whiskers.Although similar in many ways each of these Big Cats have their own way of going about their business from hunting, to raising of their young, or social behavior. This is a tour to understand all the 4 big cats of India.
1. Snow Leopard:
Ghostly, almost like a shadow, largely due to the remoteness of its habitat and secretive habits, the Snow Leopard is by far the least explored and studied of all the Big Cats. Found exclusively at great altitudes in Central and Southern Asia, in India it is the true ruler of the Himalayas predominantly found in the northern and north-eastern states of Jammu & Kashmir, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. Just like all the Big Cats, the Snow Leopard’s body is skillfully engineered to survive in a habitat majorly covered by snow. Its thick fur, with hair sometimes as long as 8-10 cm, stocky body, small rounded ears and broad paws covered with fur even on the underside are all adaptations of the evolutionary process of this cat to minimize heat loss from the body. But probably the most crucial part of its body is its large tail that is mainly used to store fat, which is a key when you live in the high snow laden mountains with no clue of getting your next meal. The tail is almost as long as it’s body and is also used as a blanket when the weather is rough. The broad paws along with its large tail essentially help the Snow Leopard maintain its balance on unstable, steep surfaces and in thick snow. Although it prefers rocky, broken terrain the Snow Leopard is equally capable of traveling great distances in snow up to 33 inches deep. The Snow Leopard, may be the smallest of all the big cats, however it is still big enough to prey on Sheep, Thar and Markhor all of which are animals weighing anywhere between 35-75 kg. It specializes in hunting prey, ambushing them from above and in fact is also capable of dragging its kill over the steep slopes and out of the sight of scavengers. Snow Leopards spend their summers at greater altitudes of about 2,500 to 6,000 m just above the tree line on the mountainous meadows however descend as low as 1,200 to 2,000 m in the winter into the high forests for food and to combat the harsh climate. Just like all the other Big Cats, climatic change, especially Global Warming causing loss of prey, is the prime reason for the decreasing number of Snow Leopards and they are currently listed as Vulnerable by IUCN. It is a matter of great pride for India to house this wonderful, elusive and shy Big Cat known as the Snow Leopard.
2. Indian Leopard:
If the Lion and the Tiger are the kings of their respective habitats and territories which do not overlap naturally today, one other big cat surely walks away with the crown of the Prince, the Leopard. With an uncanny ability to survive in almost all conditions and sharing his home with not just the two other larger big cats like the Lion and the Tiger, but also with us, Humans, it is a master survivor. The Leopard surely holds its own in the big cat club and in India or most of the other parts of the world where the big cats are found, it is the most widespread of all. That explains why the Leopard population all over the world is almost double that of all other big cats put together. Understandably, for it to adapt in such varied habitats the Leopard is one animal that can survive on any prey that it can catch. The Indian Leopard is just one of the 9 subspecies of Leopards and is very different from the rest of the big cat bunch due to a various reasons. First, it’s ability to climb trees at ease. Some Leopards spend a vast majority of their lives on the trees and their super light frame and a powerful set of shoulder muscles can be the primary reasons for it. With the constant pressure of losing its kills to Lions or Tigers, the Leopard can carry its prey up a tree that’s almost twice or sometimes even thrice its own weight. There have been cases of Leopards in Africa carrying Zebra carcasses up a tree as well and that is precisely why pound for pound it is the most powerful of all the big cats.
The second reason that sets a Leopard apart, is its secretive nature. In India with the large human population, Leopards have evolved to coexist with humans and most people who are surrounded by Leopards spend their whole lives oblivious to this fact. Unlike the Snow Leopard which is rare due to its remote habitat a Leopard, although widely found has mastered the art of living in the shadows. When one has to do that there aren’t many options for food. Hence the third reason why it is different from other big cats could be touted to the variety in its diet. From a mouse to a deer, no animal is excluded from its radar as a potential prey. In India, Leopards thriving around human settlements have evolved to prey on domestic dogs, house cats and even mice. Having said these Leopard too has not escaped the wrath of humans mainly because of its close proximity and they too are poached for their skin and bones just like the Tigers. We must take great pride and responsibility to save this magnificent Big Cat.
The King of Beasts as it is commonly referred to, the Lion is the second largest Cat on the planet. Just like all the cats, the Lion too is perfectly engineered to have all the characteristics of the feline family. At shoulder the Lion stands the tallest amongst all the big cats and with males sporting a mane, it undoubtedly stands out from the rest of the Big Cat bunch. India is home to the last surviving population of the Asiatic Lion and the present day count of over 500, that is confined in and around the Gir National Park in the western state of Gujarat, has a remarkable success story of conservation. Due to the wanton hunting of the Colonial British Officers and the Indian Rulers the once widespread Asiatic Lion population was reduced to only a dozen at the start of the 20th century in the Junagadh district of Gujarat and if not for the Nawab of Junagadh, it would have completely vanished from the wild. Although similar in many ways, the Lion is also different from the rest of the Big Cat bunch in their social behavior. Living in prides of upto 40 members in Africa where they have to take on much larger prey like Buffalos, Giraffe and sometime even Elephants, the Lion has a very strong social structure and no other Big Cat species does so. In India, due to the much denser habitat and relatively smaller prey, the Asiatic Lion prefers to form much smaller prides. Physically too the Lion is distinctive with its unicolor coat and a tuft of hair at its tail tip. Males sporting their manes is another characteristic unique to the Lions. When it comes to prey, Lions boast of strength in numbers and no prey is big enough. Strategizing their hunts, Lions have a super organized hunting technique and it is as much a mind game as it is a physical explosion of violence. However, just like these unique characteristics, the Asiatic Lion also presents its own unusual set of problems when it comes to conservation. As the current population of Asiatic Lions are all part of the same gene pool they are all prone to have poor immunity and a single epidemic could wipe the species out from the face of the planet. This makes the Asiatic Lion a treasured asset to our country and we must do all that we can to aid its survival.
Graceful, powerful, beautiful and fierce are all the adjectives that personify a Tiger. The fact that it is the National Animal of a few other countries including India, is a testimony to its iconic status. The Tiger has the distinction of being the largest naturally occurring cat on the planet with males weighing in excess of 600 pounds. There have been recorded occurrences of few weighing even more than 700 pounds. India is home to the illustrious Bengal Tiger, one of the 9 subspecies of Tigers, found only in the Indian Sub-continent and two of every three Tigers that walk the face of the earth today are Bengal Tigers. With the distinction of having the largest canines of all the Big Cats and just like Lions being the apex predators in its habitat, Tigers have no natural nemesis. But just because they are big does not mean the stand out. Their striped coat allows them to perfectly blend in, in the woods due to the phenomenon of pattern disruption where in a prey hardly realizes if the Tiger is looking at them. Just like all the other Big Cats, except the Lion, the Tiger too is a solitary animal with partners only coming together for mating. Males hardly play any role in raising the young and mom has to be the sole caretaker. India’s legacy of Tigers has been a very rich one and countless documentaries and staggering research is conducted on these cats. Some Tigers in India have been so famous that people across the globe come to India to get their glimpse and yet the Tiger finds itself in a dooms day situation today. No body part of a Tiger is spared and right from its skin to its whiskers everything is sold in the black market. With more than 40,000 Tigers that once ruled the Indian jungles before 1950, illicit poaching and destruction of habitat reduced them to a less than 1500 in the first decade of the 21st century. With considerable public support rallying in for the Tiger after a lot of nation wide campaigns the Tiger numbers in India are on a steady rise again. Tiger help maintain the balance of a forest which otherwise would explode with the prey numbers and hence it becomes all the more important to save them. It is not just a matter of pride but also a matter of survival for us and hence saving this symbolic species is of prime importance.