By Krithi K. Karanth and Arjun Srivathsa
With close to 50 species of wild carnivores, India is a haven for elusive families of cats, dogs, hyaenas, bears, otters, civets and mongooses. The Wildlife Conservation Society-India Program has been camera-trapping critters in India for over 20 years. This program originally started with pioneering camera trap work on tigers and leopards by Dr. K. Ullas Karanth in the early 1990s and has now grown to become one largest global camera trap datasets.
Owing to the enormous effort invested in such camera trap surveys in the Western Ghats, WCS-India database now has more than 750 uniquely identifiable tigers.
Along the way, there have been several exciting and unexpected discoveries. Black leopards are not a separate species, but are melanistic (dark colored) variants of the normal leopards. They occur naturally in the wild and may form up to 10% of the total leopard population in the Western Ghats. Perhaps these famous felines are not as uncommon as previously thought.
Among smaller felids are the secretive and nocturnal Rusty Spotted Cat, Leopard Cat and Jungle Cat. The Rusty Spotted cat is one of the smallest cats in the world. It is found only in India and Sri Lanka.
With twelve sub-species, leopard cats are sometimes confused with domestic cats!
Jungle cats, despite their wide distribution and common occurrence, are among the least studied animals in India.
Our camera traps have also candidly photo-captured several species of civet: Brown Palm civet, Common Palm civet and Small Indian civet. Often mislabeled as “civet cats” because of their cat-like appearance, civets are a separate branch of the family tree from cats, weasels, and others. They are poached indiscriminately for their musk and hunted and used as processors of coffee.
India has seven species of civets including the Brown Palm civet and the nearly mythical Malabar civet, endemic to the Western Ghats.
The Sloth Bear is an omnivore that feeds on termites, fruits, flowers, and sometimes, wild meat.
Wild dogs or ‘dholes’ are arguably the most fascinating wild canids. They live in packs and can easily take down quarry that are much bigger than themselves. Although dholes are generally active during the day, nocturnal activity is not uncommon.
Jackals are possibly the most wide-ranging wild canids after foxes. Most jackals inhabit human-dominated areas like agricultural fields, grasslands, scrub, ravines, and villages. They are not primarily forest-dwelling animals, making their photo-captures in the dense forests of Western Ghats a relatively rare occurrence.
The rarest and most unexpected photo-captures along these forest roads also include otters. Despite their wide range in India, very little is known about the distribution and ecology of all three species of Indian otters.
A recent paper by Ripple et al. (2014) in Science suggests that carnivores are in trouble, with 75% of species in serious decline and several showing range contractions from over 50% of their habitats. Research by Karanth et al. (2010) in the Proceedings of the Royal Society-B suggests that Indian carnivores have experienced local extinction from 14-96% of their historic range in just 100 years. The outlook for carnivores in India and globally is bleak and needs urgently to be addressed.
Our photographs are valuable because the have begun to unravel many tiny details about these carnivores, but they also call attention to how little we know about these rare, elusive, and enthralling animals.
Fundamental questions—like How do they live? What do they eat? What are their activity patterns? How large are their populations? How do they disperse? How do they interact with other species? What are major threats for their survival, and How adaptable are they?—remain unanswered.