On a full moon night in 1989, seated on the banks of a canal in Rajasthan’s Keoladeo National Park, then known as the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, 22-year-old Shomita Mukherjee waited for several hours. As part of her master’s dissertation at the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun, Mukherjee was observing a fishing cat on the other side of the 3m-wide canal.
“After almost 5 hours of peering into the water and pottering about, he suddenly dove into the water and disappeared. He emerged on my side, with a big fish in his mouth. Didn’t even care to glance at me,” she laughs. Fishing cats have valves in their ears that stop the water from getting in, she explains.
The cat Mukherjee was stalking is about twice the size of a house cat and is now listed as endangered on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List. “I didn’t get super path-breaking data, but I remember my sightings vividly,” she says of her time at the bird sanctuary that sheltered both jungle cats and fishing cats. “I could see the moon, the cat and both the reflection of the cat and the moon in the water,” she exclaims, adding sadly that she was not carrying a camera.
Twenty-three years later, she still gets excited at the sight of a cat and is often too mesmerized by a sighting to take pictures. “All cats are the same to me, domestic or tiger,” insists Mukherjee, who is known in India’s wildlife circles as the cat woman. She laughs at the label, but says cats have been the love of her life ever since she can remember.
She has so far journeyed from following lesser cats in forests to academically researching their behaviour at the Sálim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (Sacon). “I prefer to call them small cats,” she argues, adding that at the behavioural and physiological levels, all cats are similar. After all, one can look at the tiger, the biggest cat of them all, and tell that it belongs to the cat family.
At the green Sacon campus where she works, 25km from Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu, Mukherjee is in relatively unfamiliar territory. “Though I still do work with cats, I have promised to work on some birds (Sacon is a centre for ornithology). Owls look a bit like cats,” she says. So she is now working on a proposal to understand the distribution and genetic variation in owls.
“India is the richest where cats are concerned. We have 15 species of cats in all and if we still had the cheetah, there would be 16,” she says. “Cats are hard-wired into me. My father was a cat lover and we have always had cats in our home in Mumbai,” she says, adding that there was a time when she lived with four house cats.
Mukherjee started out thinking she would be a veterinarian. Then she met Yadvendradev V. Jhala (a researcher on wolves), who taught her physiology while she was pursuing a BSc at St Xavier’s College, Mumbai. “He introduced me to the field of ecology. That was a turning point in my life,” she says. She joined the WII in 1988. The 10 years she spent there were the best years of her life—travelling the country, studying different habitats.
Since 1988, Mukherjee has travelled through various forests in the country studying their feline inhabitants. From leopard cats in Himachal Pradesh to rusty-spotted cats in the Sariska Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan, she has seen them all.
In a country obsessed with large cats, Mukherjee’s interest in the small cats strikes as unusual. But all’s not well for the smaller cats either, she points out. In 2010, she received a grant to study fishing cats using molecular tools. She went back to Bharatpur, only to learn that they hadn’t been spotted for more than two years. “I started to collect scat of various cats from the area and one sample showed positive for the fishing cat,” Mukherjee says. It was an indication that the animal still lived in the area, though perhaps in smaller numbers. Two dry years may have caused its numbers to dwindle.
“I am meant more for academics than for field conservation work,” she admits, adding that understanding animals through academics and lab work can contribute to conservation. Between 1998, when she left WII, and 2005, she worked with various non-governmental organizations and completed her PhD. Since 2005, when she joined the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) in Bangalore, Mukherjee has been studying cats and cat habitats in the laboratory. While studying the DNA from leopard cats in the Western Ghats and the North-East, she identified the DNA of both to be entirely unique from those in the east. “So if we retrieve leopard cat skin from poachers, we can now tell which area they were poached from,” she says. She joined Sacon in 2010 and plans to expand her study to other wildcats.
While mapping cat habitats is fascinating, Mukherjee repeatedly goes back to talking about behaviour. “They hang around the same place and like house cats, are creatures of habit,” she says, talking about the time she raised two jungle cats at the Ranthambore National Park, Rajasthan, in 2003. They had been abandoned and she looked after them for a few months till they could be released into the wild.
All cats have their own area of speciality while hunting. They learn to hunt in a certain way and almost all of them have a map in their heads on where they are likely to find prey. “Much like we know how to get to a restaurant to get food,” she says. Mukherjee mentions two tigers in Ranthambore that would use tourist vehicles to stalk their prey. “Genghis Khan had a special method. He was good in the water, and would almost always chase his prey into the water and then kill. That is some well thought out strategy,” she laughs.
Though India has the largest variety of small cats (11 small and medium-sized cats) in the world, they are not easy to spot. “They are all predatory, shy and like to hunt in the night,” she says. The rusty-spotted cat, the smallest cat in the world, is endemic to India and found in most forests across the country. Mukherjee herself spotted the grey-brown small cat with rust-coloured spots for the first time in Sariska during a night safari in 1994. As in the case of the more glamorous big cats, spotting small cats is a matter of chance. “But once you spot them, they are likely to flee in a flash,” she warns.
Small cats are hunted for their skin and even killed for being predatory. “Since they feed on rodents, they have been seen in agricultural lands increasingly. But what people don’t realize is that their presence is beneficial to the farmer,” she says.
Mukherjee prefers that the smaller cats not be elevated to a more glamorous status. “In my brief interaction with locals in tiger reserves, I found that people viewed the tiger as the enemy, as the poster boy that robbed them of their land,” says Mukherjee. The right way to protect small cats would be to conduct awareness programmes in the areas where they are found, she adds.
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Shomita Mukherjee’s guide to chasing cats.
Sighting of small cats can’t be assured in national parks. Small cats are distributed across forest areas and sometimes, several types can be found in one area. They are mostly nocturnal and might not be seen during tourist safari hours.
While the jungle cat can be seen in most forests across India, from the North-East and the Western Ghats to the Ranthambore National Park and the forests of Gujarat, a great place to spot fishing cats is in the villages in West Bengal’s Howrah district and the Sunderbans. The North-East has the largest variety of small and medium-sized cats—you can find leopard cats, marbled cats, golden cats, jungle and fishing cats.
Leopard cats can be seen across the Himalayas, while the rusty-spotted cat can be seen in Sariska, Rajasthan, and several villages in Kerala—sometimes even in people’s attics. The caracal can be seen in and around the Sariska and Ranthambore tiger reserves.