Lesser Cats – In The Land Of Turtles
Vivek Sarkar has his dreams turn to reality in the Bhitarkanika Wildlife Sanctuary, as he crosses path with not one but three elusive lesser cat species – the jungle, leopard and fishing cat.
Photo: Vivek Sarkar
I fell in love with leopard cats the moment I saw a photograph of the feline with its beautiful yellowish-red, spotted colouration. Its black-striped head and the black spots on its body gave the impression of a miniature leopard.
When I was tasked with collecting secondary data in the Bhitarkanika Wildlife Sanctuary and National Park, I hoped my path would cross with the cat I had dreamed of seeing. As a project biologist I was collating the data to win support for raising Bhitarkanika’s World Heritage Site listing as a Category 2 Centre in 2015.
Fringed by virgin beaches of the Bay of Bengal along India’s east coast and hemmed in by the deltas of the Brahmani and Baitarni, rivers, Bhitarkanika sprawls across 672 sq. km. of rich aquatic wilderness. Though there are no charismatic animals such as large cats and elephants, the mangrove-lined creeks are inhabited by some of the world’s largest living reptiles. In the roughly 20 working field days available to me, I hoped to obtain photographic evidence of diverse species ranging from the Mangrove Pitta to the Khasi blue nawab and, (so chirped my hopeful heart), the leopard cat, jungle cat and fishing cat.
In March 2016, in the company of Udit Pratap, a student of North Orissa University, I scoured the area day and night for four days, but saw no small wild cats. Walking at night is exciting, but required us to greatly respect the potential dangers, including snakes and crocs (a large, light coloured marsh crocodile had staked out a spot in a waterbody adjacent to our research hut at Dangmal).
On one patrol, eyes shone back at us and I imagined it would be an Indian crested porcupine. But a closer look suggested it was lighter and smaller. Could it have been a leopard cat? On our approach, it disappeared into a thicket of Phoenix palms. Not accidentally, I returned to the same spot some hours later and to my utter delight, there it was… sparkling eyes and all… a leopard cat Prionailurus bengalensis.
Three days later, returning from the Forest Inspection Bungalow after dusk, I spotted a pair of gleaming eyes yet again, this time atop a tree. It was a leopard cat, perched up in the canopy. Ear alert and upright, the small cat seemed to be peering down at something. I wanted to stay, but chose not to disturb the natural scheme of things. Later that week, Bijay Das, a member of the forest staff, reported seeing a leopard cat with her two cubs in broad daylight. The three were drinking from a creek in Dangmal.
Photo: Vivek Sarkar
AN ARDUOUS HUNT
Prior to setting off on my field work, I had travelled to Ganjam to meet Dr. Pratyush P. Mohapatra, a dear friend and renowned herpetologist. He recounted an incident where a group of tourists from Bengal had spotted a largish cat in Bhitarkanika and assumed that it was a leopard. It was later identified as a fishing cat. Returning to Bhubaneshwar early the next day, I was horrified to witness a fishing cat killed by a speeding truck as the feline was crossing the road right in front of us.
I hoped to photograph the fishing cat during my survey but 12 days of rigorous search had failed to reveal one. I was advised to try the river banks of Talchua, which the cats frequented. The forest guards monitoring the creeks suggested my chances would be better in Kalibhanjdia, a narrow and elongated island thick with Phoenix groves, coastal shrubs and as many as five fresh waterbodies. Accompanied by Bijay, Udit and I reached the jetty of the island and walked through dense vegetation along a narrow muddy path to reach the beat house at the centre of the island.
Roma, Bijay’s cousin and the lone protector of the island, was expecting us. Twenty straight hours of sleepless search followed… revealing just some Painted Snipes, Nightjars and a few chital. Exhausted, we returned and decided that circling the island by boat at night might be the best option. Almost instantly we saw the glowing eyes of a crocodile. Around midnight, I saw what looked, for all practical purposes, like a small bag on the river bank. Slowing the boat and shutting the engine we sat silently as the ‘bag’ revealed itself to be a large, beautiful, female fishing cat. After spending several minutes videotaping her, we decided to leave her to her devices as she hunted for fish in the shallows. As we moved away, she turned to gift us a clear view of her face and that one vision made the past 27 hours worth all the efforts we had put in.
Photo: Bijay Das/Forest Department Staff
THE ROAD RUNNER
One evening, near the Dangmal Inspection Bungalow, I heard chital alarm calls. The deer stared fixedly in one direction. It could be a leopard cat, I thought to myself, or perhaps a small Indian civet. Edging closer, to my surprise, the torch beam revealed a plain-coloured jungle cat.
I love the work I do. Those who have not experienced nature in the raw, at the slow pace that researchers do, may not ever fully comprehend the joy experienced by the sudden sighting of even the most common animals.
Fascinated by the invertebrates that I normally seek out, I felt truly blessed to have been able to photograph all the three lesser cats that have made Bhitarkanika their home. I am among those privileged to be spending my life learning about and protecting the little-appreciated wild places that harbour such elusive lifeforms. In time, I am sure, the world will come to realise just how vital their homes are to our survival.
Photo: Vivek Sarkar
Author: Vivek Sarkar, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVIII No. 2, February 2018.