February 2016


''Paw'' through tales of an elusive cat
February 2016




An abandoned juvenile rusty spotted cat in Horogolla. On its face are eight prominent black bands radiating from the centre (Photography Mendis Wickramasinghe)

Words Nethu Wickramasinghe and L. J. Mendis Wickramasinghe

 

For many wildlife enthusiasts who visit Sri Lanka, one of the most sought after animals is the leopard. However, there are other feline species in the country that you will find interesting. The rusty spotted cat (Prionailurus rubiginosus) is the smallest of the four feline species in Sri Lanka. You may not have heard of it before, because it is extremely elusive.


This species is found in Sri Lanka (Prionailurus rubiginosus phillipsi) and mainland India, however, sub-species level endemism has been recognised. Although the rusty spotted cat lives in both the wet and the dry parts of the Island, it is a creature that prefers the safety of the jungle. Felines predominantly hunt during the nocturnal hours, and the rusty cat is no exception. The most opportune time to track and find one is just after the end of the dry season; when the first showers of the northeast monsoons wet the ground, the changing seasons signals a change in wildlife behaviour. During a nocturnal sampling visit to Sooriya Wewa, we were surprised by the silent hunting of this wild cat. During the night, the water pools formed as a result of heavy showers become ideal breeding grounds for amphibians. The croaks of the male frogs, meant for their female partners, attracts predators as well. A rusty spotted cat is unlikely to ignore this irresistible meal. Rusty cats subsist mainly on frogs, small birds, small mammals and reptiles - especially the ground-dwelling geckoes - and insects are also a part of their vital protein intake.


Since an adult fully grown rusty spotted cat is slightly smaller than an adult domestic cat, it is not unlikely that a rusty might be mistaken for a domestic cat. But on closer examination, its colouration and pattern are different, especially the striped head which has eight black bands radiating outwards on the forehead and below the eyes. If one is fortunate enough, rusty spotted cats can be seen roaming in the scrublands, amidst thick bushes of the dry zone, and in abandoned paddies, since these are fairly exposed areas in contrast to thick forest. The species can be observed quite readily at the Wasgomuwa, Yala and Udawalawa national parks during twilight hours. In the wet zone, they can be found at Kanneliya, Sinharaja and Knuckles, and the species was even reported at high altitudes in the Sri Pada thick jungles.


Once, during a research expedition in Wasgomuwa national park, at dusk, we stopped as a rusty made its appearance from the cover of the jungle. We were taken by surprise by another rusty waiting expectantly right next to us. During the days that followed, it came to be evident that these were a breeding pair and were observed at the same location each dusk.


A painting of this elusive creature was once included on a Sri Lankan stamp. Threatened mainly by habitat loss, according to IUCN criteria the species is endangered nationally and is globally considered vulnerable. Although the larger predators like the leopards often get the spotlight, their smaller cousins deserve equal ground at least when it comes to conservation.

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    Distinct brindled coat; short fur with a reddish tinge (Photography Mendis Wickramasinghe)

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    A rusty in the Yala National park at dusk (Photography Milinda Wattegedara)

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