Wild Cats of Sri Lanka

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FELINES: There are 36 species of wild cats in the world based on physical distinction and/or geographic separation, most species are further divided into sub species. Sri Lanka has four species of wild cats; the Leopard (Panthera pardus), the Fishing Cat (Prionailurus viverrinus), the Jungle Cat (Felis chaus) and the Rusty-spotted Cat (Prionailurus rubiginous). All of them are considered nationally threatened, while the Leopard is considered a globally threatened species. None of the wild cats found in Sri Lanka are endemic.

Leopard (Panthera pardus)

The leopard (Panthera pardus) is the largest member of the cat family and also the largest predator in Sri Lanka. A predator is an animal that kills other animals for its food. Today leopards can still be found in some parts of Africa, except for the true deserts of Sahara and Kalahari, and in some parts of Asia such as Sri Lanka. It is known loosely in Sinhala as ‘Kotiya’ though the correct name is Diviya. In Tamil it is called Puli.

The coat of the leopard has a background colour of pale, cream-yellow on its underside that darkens slightly to an orange-brown on its back. Solid black spots adorn its limbs and head, smaller and denser than the golden, umber-centered rosettes that cover its back and sides. The leopard’s tail has irregular patches that, at the tip, become dark-ringed bands. The leopard’s dark rosettes help it to blend into the foliage while stalking its prey.

Leopards can also be all black, a condition known as “melanism”, which is common amongst the spotted cats. Black leopards, also known as panthers, are not a separate species, but the same species of leopard. The spots can still be seen, as dark black rosettes on a lighter dark brown background. Melanistic leopards and normal leopards have been known to occur in the same litter. In Sri Lanka black leopards have rarely been seen.

The leopard is the largest wild cat in Sri Lanka. Sriyani Miththapala and others found, in 1966, that the Sri Lankan Leopard is a distinct sub-species, and was named Panthera pardus kotiya . Sri Lanka being an island this is a geographically isolated group. The Sinhala word kotiya actually refers to a tiger but since Sri Lanka does not have any tigers the word is loosely applied to the leopard here. The real Sinhala word for leopard is Diviya. [WL]

According to W.W.A. Phillips, the well-known naturalist, the leopard roamed throughout the country about 100 years ago. However now the numbers have fallen by 75% since the turn of last century. Today, it is restricted mainly to protected areas and the population not more than 500 individuals at most. The majority occurs in three National Parks – Yala, Wilpattu and Horton Plains.

Leopards live in highly variable habitats. They feel just as secure in swampy tropical forests as in rugged mountains. They live in lowland forests, mountains, grasslands, brush country, and deserts.

Leopards are animals that can easily adapt to new habitats as seen recently when a pair of leopards occupied the small forests above the town of Kandy. They have bred twice since they came. They are able to find sufficient quantities of their normal food but sometimes decide to take a goat or a dog from the locality.

Leopards are opportunistic hunters. They will eat just about anything. Their diet consists of monkeys, rodents, reptiles, amphibians, birds, fish, wild pigs, and ungulates, including deer and sambur. It stalks its prey silently and at the last minute pounces on its prey and severs its throat with a quick bite. It hunts mostly during the day but also during the night, especially if it is raiding domestic stock like cattle, goats, fowls and dogs. There are instances where the carcasses of animals, such as deer, are carried up into the trees to be eaten at leisure. Leopards are capable of carrying animals up to twice their own weight into the trees. Sometimes a leopard will keep the balance carcass of its kill, for example a deer, hidden in a thicket. This is to eat it later when the leopard gets hungry again. However the smell of putrefying flesh attracts other carrion eaters to the kill. Sometimes the leopard will chase the intruders away but at other times, especially if it is full, will let them eat.

Leopards seem to treat monkeys as a delicacy. One method they employ to catch a monkey is to growl and charge the monkeys as they unsuspectingly feed. In their effort to get away quickly up the nearest tree, or whilst jumping from branch to branch, one monkey may lose its grip in its excitement and fall to the ground and the leopard is on it in a flash.

Another method is for the leopard to lie low on its belly in the tall grass with its tail held erect. The leopard moves the erect tail, the top of which can be seen above the grass. The monkeys see this movement of something they do not know and their curiosity is aroused. Little by little they come down and get closer and closer to this moving object. The leopard waits patiently, continuing to move its tail. As soon as the most curious monkey gets close enough, the leopard pounces on the monkey and it is dead meat.

Leopards generally have 2 or 3 cubs in a litter but infant mortality is high and mothers are generally seen with 1-2 cubs. The pregnant females find a cave, crevice among boulders, a hollow tree, or a thicket to make a den and give birth. Cubs open their eyes after 10 days.

The fur of the young tend to be longer and thicker than that of adults. At about 3 months the infants begin to follow the mother about. They remain with the mother for 18-24 months though they can fend for themselves earlier. The lifespan of a leopard is between 12-17 years.

Poaching for their beautifully spotted fur, habitat encroachment and degradation, and hunting have taken their toll on the leopard populations. They are killed by farmers because they pose a threat to their livestock, but these are rare instances. Leopards can easily be poisoned since they feed on carrion. The main threat to the existence of the leopard is the killing for its skin (pelt). The reduction of their habitats have also affected leopard populations. In earlier times leopards were hunted for trophies to be made from their skin, head and even the whole body, which was mounted.

Fishing Cat (Prionailurus viverrinus)

The Fishing Cat is smaller than the Leopard, and is found throughout the country including heavily populated suburbs of the capital city of Colombo. It is generally found in wetland habitats such as swamps, marshes, reed beds, mangroves and also visits man-made wetlands such as rice fields. Recently one had fallen into a well in Battaramulla and another was seen in the day time in the marshes at Nawala. They are fairly common on the banks of the Bolgoda Lake.

Fishing cats are found discontinuously distributed throughout southern Asia, from Malaysia, Sumatra and Java in Indonesia and Sri Lanka going up to Nepal. The fishing cat has a long, sinuous body and looks like a half grown leopard. It has a somewhat flattened tail. Its coat is light brown with dark brown irregular spots, fading to white underneath. The backs of its ears are black with a central white spot.

The fishing cat is a nocturnal animal. It moves about and looks for its food at night. It hunts and feeds on fish, small reptiles such as lizards, skinks, frogs and crabs. It has also been known to feed on birds and mammals. It is called Kola Diviya in Sinhala and also Handun Diviya in some areas. In Tamil it is called Koddy Pilli.

The fishing cat has a double layer of fur so that when they are in the water they do not get wet down to the skin. There is a layer of short hair next to the skin. This is so dense that water cannot penetrate it. Like snug-fitting thermal underwear, this coat helps keep the animal warm and dry, even during its chilly fishing expeditions. Sprouting up through the first coat is another layer of long guard hairs, which gives the cat its pattern and glossy sheen. Their feet have webs between the toes but only halfway.

This helps them to swim easily. Its forepaws have unusually long phalanges (toes) and claws. They do not have full claw sheaths on their paws, so their claws are partially visible even when retracted. Cats have the ability to put out their claws when needed and retract them when not needed. This is to prevent the wear on the claws whilst walking on rough surfaces, etc.

Fishing cats contradict the belief that cats don’t like water. Powerful swimmers, they push themselves along with their webbed hind feet. They have been seen wading and swimming in shallow water, hunting for a variety of aquatic prey, including fish, frogs and toads, snails and crustaceans. They will also take small birds and mammals, snakes and domestic stock such as calves and young goats. Dens are constructed in dense shrubbery, reeds, hollow trees, in rocky crevices, or in other secluded locations. Kittens have been seen in the wild in April and June.

My father bred a pair and they had two young in October. One to three, usually two, kittens are born after a 65 – 70 day gestation, and they weigh around 170 grams at birth. Their eyes are open after 15 days. They start eating flesh after about 50 days, and the kittens are weaned between four and six months.

Adult size is attained at eight to nine months, and the young are independent between 12 – 18 months. Most of this information is from records kept by my father. Captive individuals have lived to 12 years of age. The destruction of its wetland habitat is the primary threat facing this species of wild cat. It has been found that 50% of the Asian wetlands are disappearing. Fishing cats are also persecuted for taking domestic stock.

Jungle Cat (Felis chaus)

The jungle cat inhabits the jungles and swamps of Egypt, around the Caspian Sea in Russia, Afghanistan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand and southeast China.

The Jungle Cat is smaller than the fishing cat. It is usually found amongst long grass and scrubland of the dry zone and rarely in the open jungle. It is known to feed on any creature it can overpower, including ground nesting birds and small mammals such as gerbils, rats, mice and hares.

The jungle cat looks like a large house (domestic) cat with a slightly shorter tail and longer legs. There is a difference between the males and females. The females are smaller. A male weighs about 15 pounds. They also jump in the water and catch fish. However the jungle cats in Sri Lanka prefer a terrestrial life. The jungle cats in the northern parts of their range have a ground coloration of a grayish-brown, while those in the southern parts of their range are more yellowish red in colour. Markings are restricted to the face and legs, which are faint brown stripes. Their ears are tipped with dark brown to black hair. The jungle cat’s hunting technique is like that of most other cats, stalking and pouncing.

They have been observed feeding on rats, mice, hare, and can jump high in the air to catch pheasants and other large birds. They will even kill and eat baby deer, snakes and frogs.They are usually active in the daytime, and have a den to go to in case of danger or to rest. The breeding season for the jungle cat is dependent on their range. My father had a pair of jungle cats, from Wellawa in Kurunegala, but in the three years that they were with him they never showed signs of breeding. The female seemed reluctant to mate. The gestation period is about eight weeks. Three or four kittens are born. When they are born the kittens have distinctive tabby markings on a medium gray background. The stripes gradually disappear. After eight weeks, the kittens are weaned, and begin to separate from their mother at five to six months old.

Rusty Spotted Cat (Prionailursus Rubiginous)

Rusty Spotted Cat is the smallest wild cat in Sri Lanka, similar to the size of an ordinary domestic cat. It is also found in India. Though this cat is widespread, it is rare. The one that occurs in Sri Lanka is unique to the island at sub-species level (Felis rubiginosa phillipsi). It is also called Walbalala in Sinhala and Kadu Poonai in Tamil.

It is ubiquitous in the island, ranging from the mountains to the coastal areas in both the wet and dry lands but nowhere is it common. One was brought to me when I was on an estate in Kandapola and another when I was working in the Mahaweli Project at Kalawewa. Its preferred habitats include forest and scrubland. However it is an elusive animal that is rarely seen. The Rusty Spotted Cat is a nocturnal hunter and feeds mainly on insects, small birds, rodents, frogs and possibly small lizards as well as domestic fowl.The reproductive behaviour of rusty spotted cats hav been observed in captivity, and is almost identical to the domestic cat. A litter of one to three kittens is born in a secluded den after a gestation of approximately 65 days.

The kittens lack the rusty spotting of the adults and their irises are light blue.

Nothing is known of their development but it is probably much like that of domestic kittens. The rusty spotted cat is nocturnal and spends a fair amount of its time in trees and shrubs. They are very territorial, but not much else is known about their behaviour in the wild. Breeding takes place once a year.

The coats of the kittens are duller than the adults. The Rusty-spotted Cat is named after its specific markings. The base fur is usually grey in colour and is covered by small rust red coloured spots which form into solid stripes along the back and on the top of the head – the underparts of the body, the chest bib and the chin are white. It is one of the smallest of the wild cat species, measuring up to about 18 inches in the body with a tail of no more than half its body length.

By Jayantha Jayawardene
Daily News

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