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A Cat Amongst The Pigeons

A Cat Amongst The Pigeons

Captivated by the charisma, intelligence and ability of the cat family, Vivek Menon recounts two surprise encounters with the ubiquitous of them all – the jungle cat.

The author was in the forests of Udawalawe in Sri Lanka when he watched an agile jungle cat leap out of the grass and land between a peafowl and a Red-wattled Lapwing. Photo: Vivek Menon.

A cat is amongst nature’s most supreme examples of a predator, especially in the eyes of a voyeur. A pack of dholes may be more efficient in carving up its prey but lacks the stealth of a sheath-clawed feline. A mustelid may snatch a rodent with great élan but a cat displays more raw power in its chase and its grasp. There is no family in the animal kingdom that can boast the majesty of the lion, the stealth of the leopard, the mystery of the snow leopard, the regality of the tiger and the agility of any and all cats. All of them, including the smaller cats.

Smaller, Not Lesser

When I was younger we used to refer to them as the ‘lesser cats’. But after watching them over the years in the wild, ‘smaller cats’ more correctly defines the 10 or so small, lithe killing machines that we have in the Indian subcontinent. There is the ubiquitous jungle cat; the closest relative of the domestic cat, the desert cat; the mini leopard, the leopard cat; the piscivorous fishing cat; the enigmatic rusty spotted cat; the even more mysterious marbled cat; the long-legged caracal; the three-formed golden cat; the sideburned lynx; and the flat-headed Pallas’ cat.

From the trans-Himalaya where the latter lives to the deserts of the Thar, from the swamps of the Sundarbans to the Western Ghats, wild cats have taken up almost all the niches available to wildlife in India. There is no other group of carnivores that displays such a variety of form and such geographic omnipresence. There is also, in my view, no other family of mammals that can fascinate a wildlife viewer as much.

Indians are known to love their tigers. Any visit to the forest by an amateur would likely involve a tiger. Or if you are a Gujarati it might involve a lion. But going to a forest to see a smaller cat is not something you would do. And the reason is very simple. The smaller cats are not easy to see. For every hundred times a tiger sees you, you might see it once. And for every fifty times you might see a tiger, you might see one smaller cat! Unless you go hunting for it in its peculiar habitat niche at a particular time of the day, your spotting it is nigh impossible. You can go to the Banni grasslands to see a desert cat or the wetlands of Bharatpur to see a fishing cat, but to see a caracal or lynx or marbled cat there are no such fixed destinations. Even to see the most common of all smaller cats, the jungle cat, there is no guarantee. And so I consider it a great privilege to have seen the jungle cat hunt twice in under a month in two different reserves in the subcontinent.

Cat and Mouse

The first was in Tadoba. I was chasing a tiger although in my heart of hearts I wanted to see something else. And see something else I did. First, there was a dhole, a single beast beating a quick retreat through the tall grass. We went after it for a while and then turned back, only almost immediately to see a ripple on the edge of the grass by the side of the track. It was a jungle cat and it was seemingly playing cat and mouse with the grass at the edge of the verge. In a few moments it became clear that there was a mouse present in the cat and mouse game. Possibly a field mouse, zigzagging through the grass as the cat tensed, flexed, pounced and then repeated the manoeuvre time and again. The beast was completely unconcerned that our vehicle was creeping up on it, heavy-tyred unlike its own graceful tip-toed prance. The mouse won the day though, racing through the undergrowth till it reached an opening hidden away under a tuft of grass, connecting no doubt to its warren. The cat, which was a young one by its look, turned away empty handed.

Fast forward a few months and I was in the dry deciduous forests of Udawalawe in Sri Lanka. All around me a peculiar herd of elephants coalesced. They were ranging singly or in twos and threes. Through the entire drive I saw over 20 elephants, but never more than three at a time. All the animals were in poor shape and it was not even dry season. What was happening to one of the island’s prime parks in terms of elephant forage, I wondered. The then Director General of Sri Lanka’s forests Sumith Pilapitiya and IFAW CEO Azzedine Downes were in the jeep with me and we were discussing the fate of the park’s elephant population.

Just as we were in the midst of a heated conversation we drove past a waterbody. Across the water, a mugger crocodile basked with its mouth open. A peafowl and a Red-wattled Lapwing walked tentatively past the crocodile. Watch out birdies, I thought, watching the croc lying seemingly unconcerned but undoubtedly sizing up its potential prey out of the corner of its eye. The birds seemed equally nonchalant and their eyes were fixed somewhere else. What in heaven’s name could they be looking at, I wondered. I lifted up my telephoto lens to see better and as I did the grass exploded under the birds’ feet. It was a jungle cat once again, leaping in between the peafowl and lapwing. The birds scattered in a burst of feathers and the cat landed between them, but not close enough to either to make a kill. Was it the choice that made it land in between? Would it have been more successful if there was just one moving target? The croc continued its open grinned repose, mocking the failed cat. I went on, exhilarated that I had caught on camera, unplanned, a small natural moment in its failed entirety, and with a renewed spark in my heart for those that we think of as ‘lesser’ – amongst cats and all beings. There is great beauty in the frame of a feline and perfection in the miniature versions that grace our wild lands.

Author: Vivek Menon, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVI No. 12, December 2016.


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