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Preferred habitat of the world’s smallest cat

~ by Prameek Kannan (WWF-India)

The rusty-spotted cat is endemic to the Indian subcontinent; found in India, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Little is known about the ecology of this smallest of the world’s felids, and this combined with it’s rarity have warranted it being listed under ‘Schedule I,’ of the Wildlife Protection Act of India (1972). This is the same category of protection as the tiger and Asian elephant, which means that hunting or trading in it’s body parts can result in up to 7 years of incarceration for the guilty. Until recently, it was considered as ‘Vulnerable,’ by the IUCN, but an increase in it’s occurrence records in different habitats in India and Nepal has seen it down-listed to ‘Near Threatened.’ However, even the most basic aspects of its biology, such as its habitat requirements, home range characteristics and diet remain unknown; these are crucial for conservation planning. A recent study provides a broad understanding of this species’ habitat preferences.

Kanha Tiger Reserve (KTR) in the central Indian highlands is the site for this study. The reserve harbors a mosaic of vegetation types, including; meadows and woodlands in the valleys (dominated by Sal Shorea robusta), hilly tracts of dense mixed deciduous forests and hilly plateaus with extensive grasslands. It also contains numerous perennial streams and ponds that support swamp vegetation. Kanha is a heaven for a whole suite of globally threatened species such as the endangered tiger and dhole, and vulnerable leopard, gaur, sambar, four-horned antelope and endemic hard ground barasingha deer.

The authors strategically deployed over 1000 motion-triggered cameras on trails used by wildlife, across KTR. This kind of exercise is called camera trapping, and is an invaluable tool to assess species distribution, habitat use, to obtain accurate estimates of their population size and even home range sizes. Such motion-triggered cameras can often be the only way to study elusive and nocturnal animals. Many carnivore species are elusive and nocturnal, these include wild cats such as the rusty-spotted cat and these are usually the primary focus of camera trapping studies. The primary objective of this study was to monitor tigers in Kanha Tiger reserve. However, the cameras were strategically placed to capture a whole suite of small and large bodied species. Therefore, data comprising camera trap detections coupled with habitat information gathered through remotely sensed (via satellite) data could be used to make ecological inferences for many rare species. This paper looks to ascertain the habitat preferences of the rusty-spotted cat, which is among the most poorly understood of all wild cats.

The rusty-spotted cats of Kanha were found to be nocturnal, prefer thicker canopy and more rugged terrain, and to avoid open grassland areas. This is in consonance with the cat’s arboreal nature. Being arboreal may allow these diminutive cats avoid and escape much larger and more terrestrial Jungle Cats and Jackals, which could easily kill these tiny felines. In addition, the authors speculate this may allow these diminutive cats to tap unexplored food sources such as birds, bats, tree shrews and squirrels. This study provides some useful information that could aid in designing conservation plans to protect this species, as well as to design more detailed studies to learn more about it’s ecology.

Original Article Bora, J. K., Awasthi, N., Kumar, U., Goswami, S., Pradhan, A., Prasad, A., … Jhala, Y. V. (2020). Assessing the habitat use, suitability and activity pattern of the rusty-spotted cat Prionailurus rubiginosus in Kanha Tiger Reserve, India. Mammalia.

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