Caracal: The mystery cat

A redolently illustrated, rigorously scientific, and richly historical book tells the story of one of India’s most elusive cats.

Published : Jun 12, 2024 11:00 IST - 4 MINS READ

A coursing cheetah and caracal in Rajasthan, by Kurt Boeck ca. 1890.

A coursing cheetah and caracal in Rajasthan, by Kurt Boeck ca. 1890. | Photo Credit: Repozytorium Cyfrowe Instytutòw

Circa 1650. The siyah-ghosh (black-eared) cat, or mor-todni (peafowl-killer), as the caracal is called, made it to literature. The long-legged, elusive, medium-sized cat with long tufts of fur on its ears is known to leap into the air to take down prey. The French theologian and missionary Phillipe wrote: “There is an animal that the Arabs call the guide of the lion.” It once roamed a vast territory from Africa to Asia and is known to have evolved from the oldest cat lineages. Emperor Akbar valued it and used it for royal hunts. It was also lovingly rendered in art.

Today, sightings of the caracal in India are “fortuitous” we learn from a magnificently illustrated book, Caracal: An Intimate History of a Mysterious Cat by Dharmendra Khandal and Ishan Dhar.

Caracal: An Intimate History of a Mysterious Cat
By Dharmendra Khandal and Ishan Dhar
Tiger Watch
Pages: 340
Price: Rs.3,850

When the authors set out on their journey to document the caracal, they were struck by the “absolute dearth of information”. Research on the caracal is scant. In India, this Schedule I species is now sighted only in the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan and Kutch in Gujarat, a mere 0.57 per cent of its historical range. But then the duo discovered a wealth of information from biologists, historians, forest officials, conservationists, villagers, erstwhile royals, and India’s “last living falconer”. They did a deep dive into colonial texts, the walls of ancient fortresses, “musty trophy rooms”, and museums and came up with startling discoveries.

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The book studies the cat intimately, down to its whiskers that act as “sensory extensions” and the tiny spines on its tongue that help the animal scrape flesh off bones. The cat, we learn, climbs trees with ease thanks to its retractable claws.

Caracal: An Intimate History of a Mysterious Cat

Caracal: An Intimate History of a Mysterious Cat

But its rarity in India is inexplicable. It could be because of the higher densities of other carnivores such as leopards and wolves, or because of its shrinking habitat, essentially dry woodlands and savannahs. They also come into conflict with pastoralists; the cat routinely preys on livestock.

The book chronicles the story of the caracal through world history: it stirred the imagination of ancient Egypt where cats were considered magical, adorned with jewels, and mummified when they died; in Persia, 1st century BCE, a stunning animal-head rhyta featured a caracal, and the seminal treatise Baz-nama describes how the feline was trained to course game; in oral history from the San tribe in sub-Saharan Africa is a mythological tale of the “handsome” caracal; in China, during the Tang dynasty (7th century CE), we learn from murals, that the cats were used for coursing.

The second half of this voluminous book is dedicated entirely to the caracal in India’s imagination and its terrain. The cat first appears in visual depiction during the Mughal period. Emperor Akbar was particularly fond of the caracal, as documented in Ain-i-Akbari. And the first written record of the cat was during Emperor Jahangir’s time, where it was referred to as siya-ghosh. With the arrival of the East India Company, coursing with caracal, to hunt deer and other game, became the popular. The animal was presented as diplomatic gifts, and artistic renditions now moved on to photographs of the creature.

Gerald Aungier, the second Governor of Bombay described the captive caracal in vivid detail in the 1600s: peacocks, pelicans, and partridges were hunted by the feline. “He must be kept very warme in the sharape aire of England… his usuall food is raw flesh of any creature.”

In arid Rajasthan, in the Dungarpur royal palace, is a fabulous wall painting of a caracal, circa 1800, its teeth bared, eyes turquoise blue, against a blood-red background. Another, in Kota’s Chattarmahal palace, from the 18th century, depicts a caracal riding horseback, ostensibly on its way to a hunt.

“The Lion in conference with the other animals”, by Ustad Husayn Va’iz Kashifi, ca. 1610

“The Lion in conference with the other animals”, by Ustad Husayn Va’iz Kashifi, ca. 1610 | Photo Credit: The British Library Board

‘Very tasty’

Then, over the next centuries, come photographic records. In Maharashtra’s princely Kolhapur, caracals and cheetahs were used for coursing. The authors sourced two photographs showing this: one of the cat killing a blackbuck and another hunting a great Indian bustard. Caracals were also often hunted, mounted as trophies, and even valued for their meat, described as “very tasty” by a poacher.

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Cut to the present. Today the animal is the most widespread in the world; it roams 42 African and 18 Asian countries, including Afghanistan, Botswana, Iran, Uzbekistan, and Zimbabwe. But in India, where it inhabits driers lands, overlapping with the blackbuck, the animal is rare. Caracals are often considered a threat by pastoralists and are killed or maimed; their habitat is shrinking, but wildlife laws give it the highest level of protection.

Almost every page in this book is richly illustrated with historical sketches sourced from archives and museums across the world, vintage sketches, wall paintings, their images on stamps around the globe, to historical photographs and contemporary camera trap images. It appeals to us to acknowledge this enigmatic cat, which may not be as charismatic as the tiger, as one that has captured humanity’s imagination for centuries.

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