India’s Wildlife Beyond the Tiger
India is often overlooked by wildlife enthusiasts, many of whom seem to prefer heading off to Africa to see the Big 5, those who do venture to the sub-continent some in search of tiger, in a single minded obsession, and yet, India has so much more than our stiped king of the jungles. I am not saying don’t come and witness the magic that is a tiger in the wild, trust me, it is an exceptional experience, but whilst you are looking, look around, you may be surprised at what else you may find.
I’ve lived in Kanha National Park, visited quite a few of India’s other national parks (though not all, after all there are 101 national parks and 553 wildlife sanctuaries), I’ve worked alongside some of India’s best wildlife experts and hung out with a brilliant bunch of up and coming naturalists. More recently, I visited Gujarat in search of wolf and ended up seeing five new to me species including Desert Fox, Indian Fox, Hyena, Asiatic Lion and happily, the wolf. These experiences have opened my eyes to the plethora of extraordinary natural heritage that India has. As Bikram Grewal calls it, in his excellent talk, which I’ve seen twice, ‘An Embarrassment of Riches.’
I can’t begin to cover all the species in this post but, let me enlighten you to a few key species that you may not be aware of.
Panda, yes, you read that right, we have panda! Not the black and white ones that China has, but smaller red ones that really are rather cute.
Of course, there is the beautiful Asian Elephant, does anyone out there know the different between these and their African counterparts? And then, one of the best conservation success stories to come out of India, the One-Horned Rhino.
Moving on and I have some numbers for you:
1, 2, 4, 9+1, 15, any guesses?
Let me assist:
One is the species of ape that India has, the Hoolock Gibbon, though technically, and I have to mention this or else my wildlife buddies will jump down my throat, the eastern and western are two different species. The western is found in all the states of the north-east, restricted between the south of the Brahmaputra river and east of the Dibang River. The eastern Hoolock Gibbon inhabits specific pockets of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam.
Two is the species of wild Ass that we have, the Indian Wild Ass found in Gujarat and the Tibetan Wild Ass or Kiang found in Ladakh and Sikkim.
Four is the number species of bears found in India, that’s 50% of the global bear species:
- Asiatic Black Bear, also known as the moon bear, found in the Himalayan Foothills.
- Sloth Bear, quite common and can be found in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh (and the only bears to carry young on their backs).
- Sun Bear, found in North East India.
- Himalayan Brown Bear found in remote regions in Ladakh.
Nine + one is the number of species of Wild Dog + the striped Hyena:
- Indian Plains Wolf (Canis indica) – Indian Plains Wolf or Grey Wolf are listed as endangered. Closer to the jackal in size, they are mainly distributed across the states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh.
- Himalayan Wolf (Canis lupus) Himalayan wolves are listed as an endangered species and only found in northern India in the Ladakh region and few parts of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh.
- Tibetan Wolf (Canis lupus filchneri) Tibetan wolves are genetically the same as Himalayan wolf and live in the alpine meadows of the Nanda Devi National Park in Uttarakhand, also sightings have been reported from the Bageshwar district of Uttarakhand.
- Golden Jackal (Canis Aureus) The golden jackal is the most northerly of jackal species, and also the most widely distributed. It overlaps biotopes only with the black-backed jackal in East African savannas. Golden jackals prefer dry open country, arid short grasslands and steppe landscapes.
- Red Fox (Vulpes Vulpes) The Red fox is the largest species of foxes found in India and one of the prime wildlife species from the list of flora and fauna of Ladakh around Nubra, Zanskar and Indus valley.
- Desert Fox (Vulpes Vulpes Pusilla) The White footed fox is known as desert fox in India and is the Asiatic subspecies of red fox, they are found in the dry region of Indian subcontinent from Rajasthan to Kutch.
- Bengal Fox (Vulpes Bengalensis) Bengal fox is known as the Indian fox is endemic to the Indian subcontinent and found throughout the Indian Subcontinent. Indian fox species found from the Himalayan foothills to southern India but the current habitat loss is greatest threat to the Indian fox.
- Indian Wild Dog (Cuon alpinus) Dhole dogs of India are canid native to Southeast Asia and also known as Indian wild dog or red dog. Indian wild dogs are highly social animal, listed as Endangered, living in pack and competes with tigers and leopards in the forest of South India.
- Indian Striped Hyena (Hyaena hyaena) Striped Hyena ok, so it is not a Canidae but I needed to fit it in somewhere. This is the smallest member of the true hyenas, native to Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. The striped hyena is a nocturnal animal, a scavenger and found in some large number in India in open areas of Blackbuck National Park.
Fourteen species of cats in addition to the tiger, so that’s 15 in total!
1. Rusty Spotted Cat:
The ‘rusty’ is the world’s smallest wildcat. The Rusty is mostly nocturnal and lives off rodents and small birds and have even been observed near termite mounds after the monsoons. Some of the best places to see these cats are in the buffer forest of Central India especially that of Satpura and Panna.
- Leopard Cat:
The most widespread species of all small wildcats in Asia. Similar to the big cat that they are named after they have black rosettes that cover the sides of the body.
- Desert Cat:
This species is also known as the Asiatic Wildcat or the Asian Steppe Cat. Although they prefer to live near water, these cats can live year round in waterless desert, relying on prey species for their moisture requirements. The best place to see this species in India is in the state of Rajasthan and Gujarat (Little & Greater Rann of Kutch)
- Marbled Cat:
Marbled Cats have been compared to small Clouded Leopards, as both bear the distinctive marbling pattern on their coats, they rarely seen in the wild, and are very secretive.
In India the best chance of seeing the marbled cat are in the forests of Arunachal Pradesh and parts of Northern Assam.
- Asiatic Golden Cat:
The Golden Cat is a nocturnal forest dweller, preferring sub-tropical and tropical evergreen forests, but they occasionally frequent more open areas with rocky tracts. they spend most of their time on the ground, carrying their long tail curled up at the tip.
In India they can be found in the forests of North East India.
- Fishing Cat:
Larger than a domestic cat, the Fishing Cat is well adapted to catching fish, its primary prey. Fishing Cats are another feline that contradicts the belief that cats don’t like water. They are strong swimmers, and can cover long distances underwater.
The state of Orissa is a great place to look for fishing cats in India.
- Pallas Cat:
These small cats have a stocky body with thick, soft fur and an abundant dark, woolly underfur which is double the length of that on the rest of the body. They hide for much of the day in caves or hollows under stones, or may adopt the burrows of other creatures such as marmots or foxes.
In India the best place to look for this cat is in Ladakh.
- Jungle Cat:
The Jungle Cat is the largest of the small cat family. Jungle Cats are not actually associated with ‘jungles’, but with dense vegetative cover surrounding wetlands. They are more commonly known as Swamp Cat or Reed CatThey are excellent swimmers, and have been observed diving into shallow water for fish.
They can be spotted quite easily in grassland landscapes of North, South, Western and Central India.
- Eurasian Lynx:
The Eurasian Lynx is the largest lynx species, and has one of the widest ranges of any wild cat. Although they may hunt during the day when food is scarce. The Eurasian lynx is mainly nocturnal or crepuscular, and spends the day sleeping in dense thickets or other places of concealment. Like all lynx species, Eurasian Lynx are solitary except for mothers with kittens.
In India the best place to look for the Eurasian Lynx is the mountains of Ladakh.
Although they are called ‘desert lynx’, Caracals have longer legs, a more slender body, and the tail is considerably longer than true lynx. They are a fearsome predator with remarkable speed and agility, allowing it to tackle prey up to three times its size. However, finding them in the Indian forests can be quite a challenge as they remain secretive in order to avoid interactions with other predators that are often bigger than them.
The best place to look for caracals in India is arid forests of western India such as Ranthambhore National Park.
- Clouded Leopard
Clouded Leopards named because of the large, blotchy, cloud-like markings on their body, head, legs and tail. They are perhaps one of the best tree climbers of all wildcats and have been observed hanging from the tree with just their hind legs. They are also very capable swimmers.
Though rarely seen in India they are known to inhabit the forests of Arunachal Pradesh and upper Assam.
- Snow Leopard
Unique among wild cats, the beautiful smoky grey fur of the Snow Leopard has been the cause of their near extinction at the hands of man. The Snow Leopard is intermediate between big and small cats. Like the small cats, Snow Leopards purr but cannot roar, and they feed in a crouched position. These solitary animals are active early morning and late evening, and often rest on huge nests built by black vultures during the daylight hours.
The best place to look for snow leopards in India is Ladakh.
Leopards are the most adaptable and the most widespread of all big cats, they can be found from desert landscapes to rainforests. Leopards are quite athletic, very strong climbers and good swimmers when necessary. Their amazing adaptability and their tolerance to living in close proximity to humans will probably lead them to outlive any other big cat.
Some of the best places to see leopards in India are Jawai, Satpura Tiger Reserve and Nagarhole National Park.
14: Asiatic Lion
The range of the Asiatic lion at one time extended from northern Africa to northern Greece to south west Asia to eastern India, however, today they live in just two small, isolated populations in Gir, Gujarat and a small number have been relocated to the Kuno Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary.
Physically very similar to their African cousins, Gir Lions are 10-20% smaller, have a larger tail tuft and usually have a distinct belly fold. Males also have somewhat smaller manes.
15: And last but by no means least, the one you were all waiting for: The Bengal Tiger
The largest population of wild tigers today exists in India and is that of the Royal Bengal Tiger. The current population of tigers in India is estimated at 2226. Although tigers are mostly considered to be nocturnal, they are often active during the day as well. Tigers hunt using stealth using camouflage, sight and wind direction to help them sneak as close to the prey as possible before the final charge.
So, when it comes to India’s Big 5, well, which Big 5 would you like?
The African Big 5 is the lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and Cape buffalo.
India’s The Big 5 as per Africa:
Asiatic Lion, Leopard, One-horned Rhino, Elephant and Gaur (Indian Bison)
India’s Big 5
Tiger, Asiatic Lion, Gaur, Elephant and One-horned Rhino.
The Big 5 of the Cat Family
Asiatic Lion, Leopard, Tiger, Snow Leopard, Clouded Leopard.
The Unique (to India) 5
Red Panda, Wild Ass, Sloth Bear, Lion Tailed Macaque, Gharial and One-horned Rhino.
I could go on and on with this list but I think you get the drift.
Sources: WWF India, Varun Narain Mathur – Jungle Sutra.
If you enjoyed this, then you may enjoy this about Kaziranga:
Or this about wildlife in Gujarat: https://memsahibinindia.com/desperately-seeking-satisfaction-could-gujarat-deliver/
My book, Escape to India about life in the jungles of Madhya Pradesh is available on Amazon.