Ridiculously rare photo catches Asian caracal swimming a river in India

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If you’ve ever thought of the caracal before, you’ve probably pictured it inhabiting the savannas of Africa, its long-fringed ears sticking up above the wild grasses. But although the caracal (Caracal caracal) is best known from its African habitats, a tiny population persists in India.

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It’s here, on the Chambal River, that a tourist, Vaibhav Sanghavi, took an astoundingly unusual photo of a caracal — a medium-sized wild cat with stunning ears — swimming the large river. The photo is noteworthy not only because of the cat’s unusual aquatic behavior, but because it was taken in Madhya Pradesh, a central Indian state where the caracal was recently declared extinct by the Forestry Department.

“Quite surprising!” is how Shreyas Vijay describes the photo. “This is likely the first-ever recorded instance of such behavior in Asiatic caracals.”

Vijay, the founder of India’s Caracal Conservation and Research Project, spends most of his time studying the charismatic cats in Gujarat state, west of Madhya Pradesh. The caracal is endangered in India according to the IUCN Red List, with fewer than 100 individuals estimated across the whole country. In addition to Africa and India, the caracal is also found in the Middle East as well as Central and Southwest Asia.

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Tourist Vaibhav Sanghavi took an unusual photo of a caracal swimming the large Chambal river. Image by Vaibhav Sanghavi.

Researchers have observed caracals fording rivers in Africa; that includes Vijay, who saw one swim the Berk River in South Africa. But this is a first for one of the cats in Asia. Vijay says no one knows why the Madhya Pradesh cat swam the river, but it may have been due to human impacts.

“[It] saddens me to think about the increasing anthropogenic pressures on their habitats that might have forced them to adapt so drastically to survive in the modern world,” he says.

Caracals were once famous in India where they were renowned as hunting cats for royalty. But today, they survive in only three states in the country, down from 13.

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“Every language had its own name for this feline,” Vijay says. “It’s surprising how a once-popular animal has vanished both physically and culturally.”

Vijay says the rare cats are threatened by habitat destruction due to agriculture, grazing and wind turbines as well as competition from invasive species.

“Most caracal populations exist outside protected areas, making it difficult to provide them with adequate protection. Comprehensive studies are needed to guide conservation efforts in the right direction,” he says. The Indian government has classified grasslands and scrub forests as “wastelands,” according to Vijay, increasing pressure on species like caracals.

Intriguingly, the Madhya Pradesh Forestry Department recently announced it was looking to reintroduce caracals back into the state. In 2022, it introduced African cheetahs back into India, the first cheetahs in the country since Asiatic cheetahs were extirpated here 70 years ago. While the cheetah reintroduction has struggled — such programs rarely succeed without major setbacks — the big cat population has risen from an original population of 20 animals to 26 today.

This article by Jeremy Hance was first published by Mongabay.com on 10 May 2024. Lead Image: The caracal is endangered in India according to the IUCN Red List, with fewer than 100 individuals estimated across the whole country. Image by Leo za1 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

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