Asiatic Wildcat

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Asiatic Wildcat (Indian wildcat hunting monitor lizard. Illustration by Daniel Giraud Elliot 1883)

The Asiatic wildcat (Felis silvestris ornata), also known as Asian steppe wildcat and Indian desert cat, is a subspecies found from the eastern Caspian north to Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, into western India, western China and southern Mongolia. Since they are spread over such vast territory it is impossible to ascertain their number, but it is believed that populations are declining throughout the range.

Characteristic features

Throughout the range Asian wildcat’s fur is generally short, but its length varies according to the age of the cat and the season of the year. Animals with paler forms are found in drier areas, whereas the darker, more heavily spotted and striped forms live in more humid and wooded areas. These animals have a long, tapering tail, with a short black tip, and with spots at the base. Unique feature of these wildcats is a small but prominent tuft of hair, up to one-and-a-half cm long, on the tip of each ear. Their forehead has a pattern of four well-developed black bands. Compared to domestic cats, Asian wildcats have relatively longer legs. Throat and ventral surfaces are whitish to light grey to cream, often with distinct white patches on the throat, chest and belly. Weighing about 3 to 4 kg (6.6 to 8.8 lb), males are generally heavier than females

Asian wildcats found in India and Pakistan have pale sandy yellow coats that are marked with small spots that tend to lie in vertical lines down the trunk and flanks. Those occurring in Central Asia have more greyish-yellow or reddish background colour, marked distinctly with small black or red-brown spots. The spots on the body are sometimes fused into stripes, especially in the Central Asian regions east of the Tian Shan Mountains.

Distribution and habitat

Asiatic wildcats are frequently observed in the daytime. They often use rock crevices or burrows dug by other animals. The Caucasus or Caucasia, a region at the border of Europe and Asia, situated between the Black and the Caspian Seas, is the transitional zone between the Asiatic wildcat to the south and east and the European wildcat to the north and west. In this region, European wildcats inhabit montane forests, whereas Asiatic wildcats occur in the low-lying desert and semi-desert regions adjoining the Caspian sea. They are usually found near water sources, but are capable of living year-round in waterless desert. In mountainous regions, where there is sufficient dense vegetation, they are found up to the altitude of 2,000 to 3,000 m (6,600 to 9,800 ft). Depth of the snow in winters restricts the northern boundaries of their range.

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India

The subspecies is most typically associated with scrub desert in India. They occur in the desert areas of Rajasthan, Rann of Kutch and the adjoining Banni grasslands in the neighbouring state of Gujrat in India and the desert areas of Sindh in Pakistan.

In 1999, they were reportedly present in Nagaur, Pali, Barmer, Bikaner and Jaisalmer districts of Rajasthan. The Jalore Wildlife Sanctuary in Rajasthan is one of the only accessible wildlife areas where Asiatic wildcats are present in sizable numbers.

In western Rajasthan’s scrub habitat they live mainly on desert gerbils ( a small mammal of the order Rodentia), but also hunt doves, hares, rats, sandgrouses, gray partridges, sparrows, peafowls and bulbuls and also feed on eggs of ground nesting birds. They have been observed preying on reptiles like, saw-scale vipers, cobras, sand boas, geckos and even on scorpions and beetles.

Afghanistan

Asiatic wildcats have been recorded from the central Hazarajat mountains and the steppe region, from Shibar Pass, near Herat and in Bamyan Province in Afghanistan prior to 1973.

In 1990s, the subspecies was reported as quite common and populations stable in the lowlands of Kazakhstan. A pronounced loss of range has been documented in Azerbaijan.

China

In China, the animal is found in Shaanxi, Gansu, Xinjiang, Qinghai, Ningxia, and Inner Mongolia. There are records showing the cat’s presence in northern Tibet as well as Sichuan, but they are questionable. Before 1950, Asiatic wildcat was the most commonly found felid in Xingjian. They could be easily located along all the major river basin systems and in Taklimakan desert, but later it got confined to three regions of southern Xinjiang only viz., Bayingolin Mongol Autonomous Prefecture Bayingolin Mongol Autonomous Oblast, Aksu and Hotan. In its natural habitat in the Xinjiang desert region of China the cat is declining rapidly primarily because of excessive hunting for pelt trade and secondly due to shrinkage of habitat due to cultivation, oil and gas exploration and excessive use of pesticides.

Results of a feed item analysis of Asiatic cats in the Tarim Basin in northwest China revealed that their primary prey was the Tarim hare followed by jerboa, gerbil, poultry and small birds, fish, Cardiocranius spp., sand lizard and Agamid lizards.

Threats

Apart from other factors hybridisation is a great threat to the subspecies. Females quite often mate with domestic males, as a result hybrid offspring are frequently found near villages where wild females live. They have been hunted on large scale in Afghanistan; in 1977 over 1200 pelts manufactured into different articles were on display in the bazaars of Kabul.

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