Friday, February 27, 2009

Vanishing Species - The Caracal

An article by Mohan Pai

The Caracal
Felis carcal schmitzi

Pic courtesy Wikipedia

The Caracal is most well-known for its skill at hunting birds; It can snatch a bird in flight, sometimes more than one at a time.

The Caracal (Caracal caracal), also called Persian Lynx or African Lynx, is a fiercely territorial medium-sized cat. The Caracal takes its name from its black ears. The word Caracal comes from the Turkish word "karakulak", meaning black ears. The Caracal is labelled as a small cat, but is amongst the heaviest of all small cats, as well as the quickest, and nearly as fast as the Serval.

In India, Caracal is supposed to be common in Cutch. Also found in the drier parts of Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and central India.
An uncommon and elusive animal, fast approaching extinction in India, little is known about the Caracal in wild state. It is a creature of desert and scrub jungles, where it preys on birds, which it is said to take in flight by springing up at them, and on rodents, antelope and small deer. Like the cheetah, Caracal is easily tamed and trained to show its prowess in hunting small dear, gazelle, hares, and foxes and also birds such as peafowl, cranes and pigeons which was once a popular sport in Persia and India. Of all the species of Cats, the Caracal comes nearest to the cheetah in the structure of its hindfeet, though it cannot compare with it in speed or staying power.


Males typically weigh about 13-18 kg (28-40 lbs), while females are smaller. The Caracal resembles a Eurasian Lynx and for a long time it was considered a close relative of the lynxes. Recent DNA research, however, has shown that the Caracal is not a close relative of lynxes at all, but is instead related to the Serval and the African Golden Cat.The Caracal is 65 cm in length (about two ft), plus 30 cm tail (about 1 foot). It has longer legs and a slimmer appearance than a lynx. The colour of the fur is variable: it may be wine-red, grey or sand-coloured. Melanistic (black) Caracals also occur. Young Caracals bear reddish spots on the underside; adults do not have markings except for black spots above the eyes.The most conspicuous feature of the Caracal is elongated, tufted black ears, which also explain the origin of its name – karakulak, Turkish for "black ear". Its ears, which it uses to locate prey, are controlled by 20 different muscles.

Habitat and diet

The Caracal is distributed over Africa and western Asia. Its habitat is dry steppes and semi-deserts, but also include woodlands, savannah, and scrub forest. It is a solitary, or paired, territorial cat. The Caracal may survive without drinking for a long period — the water demand is satisfied with the body fluids of its prey.It hunts at night (but in colder seasons also in the daytime) for rodents and hares; rarely it may even attack a gazelle, a small antelope or a young ostrich. Caracles are the fastest felids for their size. It is a picky eater, and discards the internal organs of the mammals it catches, partially plucks the fur off hyraxes and larger kills, and avoids eating hair by shearing meat neatly from the skin. However, it will eat the feathers of small birds and is tolerant of rotten meat.It is most well-known for its skill at hunting birds; the Caracal is able to snatch a bird in flight, sometimes more than one at a time. The Caracal can jump and climb exceptionally well, which enables it to catch hyraxes better than probably any other carnivore. Its life expectancy in the wild is 12 years, or 17 years in captivity. It is often viewed as vermin by farmers in Africa because it frequently climbs over fences to eat chickens and other poultry.The Caracal is almost impossible to see in the wild, not because there are very few of them, but because it hides extremely well. Game drives in countries such as Kenya and Botswana widely encounter other animals, but a sighting of a Caracal is extremely rare.

References: Wikipedia, S. H. Prater (The book of Indian Animals)


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Sunday, February 22, 2009

Vanishing Species - Varanus salvator

An article by Mohan Pai
Varanus salvator
Water Monitor

Pic by Abhijit Siraj

Second largest of all the monitor lizards of the world, after the Komodo dragon,Varanus salvator can attain a length of three meters and is also another endangered species.

The Water monitor, (Varanus salvator), a cousin of the Komodo dragon, is a large species of monitor lizard capable of growing over 3 meters (9.8 ft) in length, with the average size of most adults at 2.5 meters (8.2 ft) long. Maximum weight of Varanus salvator can be over 75 kg, but most are half that size. Their body is muscular with a long powerful laterally compressed tail. Water monitors are one of the most common monitor lizards found throughout Asia, and range from Sri Lanka, India, Indochina, the Malay Peninsula and various islands of Indonesia, living in areas close to water. In India, they are to be found in the mangroves and marshy lands of the east coast and also in the Andamans.

Varanus salvator is semi-aquatic and has a wide range of habitats. They are frequently seen on river banks and in swamps. The Water Monitor is a water-dependent species and has been known to cross large stretches of water, explaining its wide distribution.Though also found on flat land, a typical burrow is in a river bank. The entrance starts on a downward slope but then increases forming a shallow pool of water. The average length is about 9.5 m, the average depth is about 2 m, and the average temperature is around 26 degrees Celsius.

Physical Description

Varanus salvator is reported to grow to 3 meters in length, but most adults are 1.5 meters long at most. Individuals have a black temporal band edged with yellow that extends back from each eye. The neck of this monitor is very long with an elongated snout. The nostrils are close to the end of the nose. The tail is laterally compressed and has a dorsal keel. The scales on the top of the head are relatively large, whil those on the back are smaller in size and are keeled.The color of the Water Monitor is usually dark brown or blackish, with yellow spots on the underpart of the lizard. The yellow markings on the species tend to diminish as the individual becomes older.


Males are normally larger than the females, usually twice as large in mass. The maturation of the male occurs when the individual is about 1-meter in size and the female at about 50-cm. The breeding season begins in April and lasts until October. However the testes of the male are the largest during April and the female is more receptive, thus there is an increase in reproductive success the earlier fertilization takes place.Larger females produce a larger clutch size than smaller individuals. The eggs are usually deposited along rotting logs or stumps.

Pic by Abhijit Siraj


An interesting behavior of the Water Monitor resembles a behavior of the green iguana. When the monitor becomes the hunted, usually from large snakes (like the hamadryads), it will climb trees with its powerful legs. Once in the tree it may escape the threat, but if the danger is still present the Water Monitor will jump from the branch into the safety of a stream or river.

Food Habits

The Water Monitor is an extreme carnivore. This means that the lizard will eat about any animal that it believes it can consume. Among some of the common prey includes: birds and their eggs, small mammals (especially rats), fish, lizards, frogs, snakes, juvenile crocodiles, and tortoises. Like the Komodo Dragon, the Water Monitor has been known to dig up corpses of humans and devour them as well.The primary hunting technique used by Varanus salvator, as well as by other monitors, is characterized by 'open pursuit' hunting, rather than stalking and ambushing. The lizard is very fast for it size due to its powerful leg muscles. While hunting for aquatic prey, Varanus salvator can remain submerged for up to 30 minutes.

Economic Importance

Skins of Varanus salvator are used for dietary protein, ceremonies, medicine, and leather goods. Annual trade in these skins may reach more than 1 million whole skins a year, mostly in Indonesia for the leather trade. Medium-sized individual are preferred because the skin of large animals is too tough and thick to shape. There is small trade in live monitors, but they are not suitable pets for a majority of the owners.Although killed extensively for its skin, this species seems to be resilient. It has been proposed that this is because large females, who produce larger clutches, are avoided by the leather trade.

A water monitor portrayed a Komodo Dragon in the 1990 movie, The Freshman.

References: AnimalDiversity Web, Wikipedia

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Saturday, February 14, 2009

Vanishing Species - Asiatic Wild Buffalo

An article by Mohan Pai
Asiatic Wild Buffalo
Bubalus arnee

Pic courtesy: Ritu Raj Konwar

A critically endangered species, interbreeding with domestic buffalos is leading to the extinction of the Asian Wild Buffalo.

It is a large ungulate and a member of the bovine subfamily and the ancestor of all the abundant domestic Water Buffalo varieties and breeds which have descended from it.Large, slate-black and robust, with flat sweeping horns, the Wild Buffalo, due to its unpredictable nature, is considered to be one of the most dangerous animals to encounter. The buffalo snorts, stomps its feet, and shakes his head as it prepares to charge. It is a sleeker, heavier version of the domestic buffalo and has the largest horns on any animal in the world.The IUCN Red List of threatened species classifies "Wild Asian Water Buffalo" (B. arnee) as an endangered species. The total number of wild Asian Buffalo left is thought to be less than 4,000, which suggests that the number of mature individuals will be less than 2,500, and is continuing decline. The severity of the threats, especially hybridization with the abundant domestic water buffalo is leading to genetic pollution.The domestic Water Buffalo, although derived from the Wild Asiatic Water Buffalo, is the product of thousands of years of selective breeding carried out by ancient Asian civilizations, especially in India.

The Asiatic Wild buffalo is the most powerful yet the most proportionate of the South Asian bovines. It is one of the most magnificent animals in the world. Seals of the Indus valley civilization (2500 B.C.) depict the wild buffalo, revealing its wide distribution across the subcontinent.

In Asia, the population of wild Water Buffalo has become sparse, and there is fear that no pure-bred wild water buffalo exists. Interbreeding with domesticated buffaloes has posed a serious problem to the population in Assam and it is believed that the highly endangered population found in Central India ( Madhya Pradesh) is of a purer strain.

Pic courtesy:Dr. Manoj Sindagi

Adult water buffalo ranges in size from 300 kg to 600 kg for the Domestic Buffalo. In the wild, wild Asian water buffalo can weigh up to 800 kg for females, and males, 1200 kg. They can stand as tall as 1.8m at the shoulder, and stretch up to 2.9m in body length. However, the wild buffalo sub-species found in the Assam state of Northern India, where they inhabit monsoon forests along the foothills of the Himalaya, are notably larger. Here, the average weight of a wild adult buffalo is 900 kg, with the male a bit larger than the female. The average height at the shoulder for a male is about 1.7m, and may reach even 2 metres. These wild buffalo, mostly found in the forests of Kaziranga and Manas national parks, both of which are UNESCO world heritage sites.

They have also been known to spread into the northwestern region of the neighboring country, Myanmar.With the establishment of the 20,000 km2. Hukaung Valley tiger reserve in 2004 in Mayanmar, the largest ever protected wildlife reserve, now these huge wild buffalo may have the hope of long-term survival. Buffalo are believed to have originated in South Asia. Today, outside India, the true wild water buffalo can only be found in Thailand in extremely low number of about 50 individuals, and in the Annamites range (also called Truong Son range) forests running along the border of Vietnam - Laos -Cambodia. Populations found elsewhere in Asia are feral breeds, not true wild water buffalo. These species were introduced to Argentina and Bolivia.

References: A field Guide to Indian Mammals by Vivek Menon, Wikipedia.

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Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Vanishing Species - The Snow Leopard

An article by Mohan Pai
The Snow Leopard
Uncia uncia

‘Sabu’, the elusive ghost cat of the Himalayas has a near mythical status comparable with the Yeti.

The snow leopard (Uncia uncia), sometimes known as the ounce, is a moderately large cat native to the mountain ranges of Central Asia. The classification of this species has been subject to change and its exact taxonomic position is still unclear.It cannot roar, despite possessing an incomplete ossification of the hyoid bone, which was previously thought to be essential for allowing the big cats to roar. However, new studies show that the ability to roar is due to other morphological features, especially of the larynx, which are absent in the snow leopard.

The Himalayan Snow leopard is a descendant of the fabled Saber-toothed cat, as are other large cats, and lives high up in the mountains of northern India, countries that border the Himalayas, and into Russia. The snow leopard is also called "sabu" by the local inhabitants of the mountainous regions that is home to this cat species. Sabu, roughly means, "Ghost Cat." They acquired this nickname because snow leopards are nocturnal hunters and rarely come down below the 15,000 foot level, so they are rarely seen by humans. A research team that set out to observe the habits of the snow leopard spent over four years searching for this species and saw a total of only 18 of the elusive creatures.

Snow leopards have long thick fur, the base color of which varies from smokey grey to yellowish tan, with whitish underparts. They have dark grey to black open rosettes on their body with small spots of the same colour on their heads and larger spots on their legs and tailSnow leopards show several adaptations for living in cold mountainous environments. Their bodies are stocky, their fur is thick, and their ears are small and rounded, all of which help to minimise heat-loss. Their feet are wide, which distributes their weight better for walking on snow, and they have fur on their undersides to increase their traction on steep and unstable surfaces, as well as to assist with minimising heat-loss. Snow leopards' tails are long and flexible which help them to maintain their balance. The tails are also especially thickly covered with fur which, apart from minimising heat-loss, allows them to be used like a blanket to protect their faces when asleep.

It's light colored coat keeps it cool in summer and as winter approaches, the snow leopard grows a thicker, more airtight fur covering to provide protection from the harsh Himalayan winter climate. It's winter coat has spots arranged in distinct rows. They are a grayish color and have a rounder shape. These spots aid the cat in being able to blend into the winter surroundings. Snow leopards grow to 4-5 feet in length and are around 3 feet tall ( at the shoulder) when full grown. They weigh anywhere from 80 lbs for the female, to 165 lbs. for the largest male. Their breeding season falls toward the end of winter, the female has a gestation period of 95 to 105 days resulting in a litter of from 2 to 5 cubs with the normal number being 2 cubs. Their life span in the wild is usually around 8 to 10 years but live twice that long in captivity.

These cubs are born with a much darker coat than their mother and are much easier to spot by predators so she must be especially careful of their welfare for the first few months. They are born blind and will start to crawl around in around 2 weeks. When they are 60 days old, they are able to eat solid food although they may continue to suckle for several more weeks. They stay with their mother until they are around 1 to 1 1/2 years old.

Snow leopards are solitary hunters and because of the harsh climate in which they live, they must range over many miles in order to find sufficient food to live. Favorite prey includes wild goats, mountain sheep and rodents. These small leopards wait patiently on rocky ledges for small animals to show themselves. They are extremely agile and can run down most any small animal that ventures into it's hunting range. Their foot pads are surrounded with thick fur to keep their feet from freezing as they wait (sometimes for hours at a time) for prey to show up.

Because of the inaccessibility of much of the snow leopards habitat the exact numbers left in the wild is unknown, but some estimates place the figure as low as 4,500 to 5000. The decline in population has, in the past, been mainly due to the snow leopards much sought after fur and although the animal is protected in most areas, local hunting and trapping still remains a threat. As with the Tiger, the snow leopard is still hunted for its bones, which are commonly used in many Chinese medicines and this, along with the enforced decline of many of the cats larger prey species, places continuing pressure on the remaining numbers of snow leopard left in the wild. Most snow leopards are not killed by only the poachers but quite a few die by falls from rocky cliffs and by landslide.Because of this, the snow leopard is listed in the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Animals as Endangered and it is probable that without continuing action by many of the world’s conservation organisations they may become extinct in the wild.

Snow leopard in heraldry

The snow leopard (almost invariably known in heraldry as the ounce) (Aq Bars) is a national symbol for Tatars and Kazakhs: a snow leopard is found on the official seal of the city of Almaty, and a winged snow leopard is found on Tatarstan's coat of arms. A similar leopard is featured at the coat of arms of North Ossetia-Alania. The snow leopard award was given to Soviet mountaineers who scaled all five of the Soviet Union's 7000m peaks. In addition, the snow leopard is the symbol of the Girl Scout Association of Kyrgyzstan.

References: Wikipedia, Big Cats on line.