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Sunday, April 18, 2021

Explained: The caracal, a favourite of royals, now critically endangered

The caracal has traditionally been valued for its litheness and extraordinary ability to catch birds in flight; it was a favourite coursing or hunting animal in medieval India.

Written by Esha Roy | New Delhi |
Updated: March 4, 2021 10:15:48 am
The caracal is a medium-sized wildcat found in parts of Rajasthan and Gujarat (Source: Wikimedia)

The National Board for Wildlife and Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change last month included the caracal, a medium-sized wildcat found in parts of Rajasthan and Gujarat, in the list of critically endangered species. Though not under grave threat in its other habitats, the animal is on the verge of extinction in India, some experts believe. The recovery programme for critically endangered species in India now includes 22 wildlife species.

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The wildcat

Besides India, the caracal is found in several dozen countries across Africa, the Middle East, Central and South Asia. While it flourishes in parts of Africa, its numbers in Asia are declining.

The wildcat has long legs, a short face, long canine teeth, and distinctive ears — long and pointy, with tufts of black hair at their tips. The iconic ears are what give the animal its name — caracal comes from the Turkish karakulak, meaning ‘black ears’. In India, it is called siya gosh, a Persian name that translates as ‘black Ear’. A Sanskrit fable exists about a small wild cat named deergha-karn or ‘long-eared’.

In history and myth

The earliest evidence of the caracal in the subcontinent comes from a fossil dating back to the civilisation of the Indus Valley c. 3000-2000 BC, according to a reference in ‘Historical and current extent of occurrence of the Caracal in India’, one of the few published studies on the animal. (Dharmendra Khandal, Ishan Dhar, and Goddilla Viswanatha Reddy, Journal of Threatened Taxa, December 14, 2020)

The ears are a caracal’s signature feature (Source: Wikimedia)

The caracal has traditionally been valued for its litheness and extraordinary ability to catch birds in flight; it was a favourite coursing or hunting animal in medieval India.

Firuz Shah Tughlaq (1351-88) had siyah-goshdar khana, stables that housed large numbers of coursing caracal. It finds mention in Abul Fazl’s Akbarnama, as a hunting animal in the time of Akbar (1556-1605). Descriptions and illustrations of the caracal can be found in medieval texts such as the Anvar-i-Suhayli, Tutinama, Khamsa-e-Nizami, and Shahnameh.

The caracal’s use as a coursing animal is believed to have taken it far beyond its natural range to places like Ladakh in the north to Bengal in the east. The East India Company’s Robert Clive is said to have been presented with a caracal after he defeated Siraj-ud-daullah in the Battle of Plassey (1757).

Declining numbers

The caracal is an elusive, primarily noctural animal, and sightings are not common. Very few studies have been conducted on the wildcat, and there is no reliable data on populations now or in the past. In the absence of sightings, several experts fear the caracal could be on the verge of extinction in India — some estimates put their numbers at no more than 50; other experts say an accurate assessment is difficult.

The caracal has historically lived in 13 Indian states, in nine out of the 26 biotic provinces. In the period before Independence, the animal roamed an estimated area of 7.9 lakh sq km; between then and 2000, however, this habitat shrunk by almost a half. After 2001, sightings have been reported from only three states.

“From 2001 to 2020, the reported extent of occurrence further decreased by 95.95%, with current presence restricted to 16,709 sq km, less than 5% of the caracal’s reported extent of occurrence in the 1948-2000 period,” according to Khandal et al.

The caracal could be earlier found in arid and semi-arid scrub forest and ravines in Rajasthan, Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Odisha, Jharkhand, and Chhattisgarh. Today, its presence is restricted to Rajasthan, Kutch, and parts of MP.

The caracal is rarely hunted or killed — in recent years, cases have been detected of the animal being captured to be sold as exotic pets — and the decline of its population is attributable mainly to loss of habitat and increasing urbanisation. Experts point out that the caracal’s natural habitat — for example the Chambal ravines — is often officially notified as wasteland. Land and environment policies are not geared towards the preservation of such wasteland ecology, rather they seek to ‘reclaim’ these areas to make them arable.

Infrastructure projects such as the building of roads lead to the fragmentation of the caracal’s ecology and disruption of its movement. The loss of habitat also affects the animal’s prey which includes small ungulates and rodents.

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The listing of the caracal as critically endangered is expected to bring central funding to conservation efforts. It is likely to ensure that the animal is studied comprehensively for the first time, including its home range, population, prey, etc.

Such study will also throw light on the much neglected “wastelands” in the country, which are home to a large number of animal and bird species, including leopards, Asiatic wild cats, rust spotted cats, sloth bears, wolves, wild dogs, civets, etc.

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