Caracal in Line to Become extinct?

News Excerpt:

An estimated 50 caracals are left in the small clusters in the states of Rajasthan and Gujarat, making caracal the second cat species after the Asiatic cheetah to reach the brink of extinction in India.

More about Caracal:

  • Caracals, also known as desert lynx or African lynx, are medium-sized wild cats native to Africa and Asia. 
  • These animals have a distinctive appearance, with long, tufted ears and a short, beige-brown coat. They are known for their agility and speed,
  • They are found in small herds and inhabit dry, arid regions and moist woodlands. 
  • The caracal is known by multiple distinct vernacular names to common people in India, especially within its range areas and these names are largely centred on its attributes. 
    • For instance, in Rajasthan, its reputation as a killer of peafowl has resulted in multiple vernacular names that denote the same such as Mor Todni and Mor Mar Bagheri.
  • Along with the cheetah, the caracal was the only other species of cat extensively deployed by royalty and nobility as a coursing animal to hunt small prey animals. 
    • This practice was documented from parts of western Asia to even areas outside of the caracal’s natural extent of occurrence area, such as southern Italy and China, at different points in history. 
    • In India, coupled with its perceived rarity, the caracal was prized as a coursing animal by royalty and nobility and was largely known by its Persian name, Siyah-Gosh (or “black-eared”).

Geographic Range of Caracal:

  • The Caracal is widely distributed across Africa, Central Asia, and south-west Asia into India. 
  • While it is relatively common in Africa, there is concern over the status of the Caracal population in India.
  • Historically, the caracal was found all across Central India and the Indo-Gangetic plains.
  • Today it has a wide but patchy distribution and is restricted to specific pockets in western India in the state of Gujarat and Rajasthan. Locally, the species is facing a threat of going into extinction in India.
  • The Caracal occurs at low densities, making it vulnerable to extinction. It is estimated that less than 10-15 animals survive in the Kutch region, Gujarat, and less than 50 individuals in Rajasthan. 

Conservation status:

  • While the species is listed under ‘least concern’ under the IUCN Red List globally, due to its large population in Africa. 
  • It has been listed as ‘near threatened’ by the Conservation Assessment and Management Plan (CAMP) and IUCN Red List assessment in India. 
  • The Caracal is listed as Schedule I species by the Indian Wildlife Act of 1972.
  • It is categorised under Appendix I of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), which prohibits the international trade in the species.

Threats faced by the species:

  • Habitat loss and fragmentation and increased human disturbance are the main threats to the Caracal population in India.
  • Large scale wind factories in Kutch and intensive mining of Lignite, Limestone and Bentonite around and within Narayan Sarovar Wildlife Sanctuary are expected to cause more harm to the already dwindling population of the Caracal.
  • Caracal habitats outside protected areas are gravely threatened due to their categorization as ‘wastelands’ under Government policy, which eases the process of land acquisition for agricultural practices and large-scale developmental projects.
    • Within the last two decades, considerable scrubland has been converted to cropland in Rajasthan.
  • Caracal is also threatened by the illegal wildlife trade and is a favourite amongst exotic pet owners, despite being categorised under Appendix I of CITES.
  • Due to the very small  number of their population in India it is hard to start a breeding programme for Caracals.

Potential habitats for Caracal conservation:

  • In 2022, Wildlife Institute of India along with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), Madhya Pradesh Forest Department and Leo Foundation of The Netherlands conducted a study in nine states – Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh – on the presence of caracals.
  • The study indicated that areas in Kutch (Gujarat), Aravalli mountains (Rajasthan), Malwa plateau (Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh) and Bundelkhand region (Madhya Pradesh) were potentially suitable habitats for caracals. 
  • It further identified the Ranthambore-Kuno Landscape (RKL), which falls in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, as a highly potential caracal habitat area and a suitable site for the conservation of the Caracal. 
  • The Madhya Pradesh Biodiversity Board is also undertaking a study on caracals in this landscape.

Way Forward:

  • A key step in the struggle to save the caracal is to create awareness about these rare animals. Not many have seen a caracal in a zoo, let alone in the wild. It is thus vital to disseminate knowledge about them and the various threats causing their decline.
  • Protecting caracals in India should involve a combination of conservation efforts aimed at habitat preservation and implementing laws and regulations to safeguard these animals.
  • A Species Action Plan for the Caracal in India has to be taken up as an urgent issue. Otherwise, it might just be a matter of time before this unique feline follows the fate of India’s Asiatic Cheetahs and leaps into extinction.