WHEN THE MASTER SURVIVORS ARE UNDER THREAT
By: Dr.Junaid Ahmad Malik
Imagine the most ferocious predators becoming endangered species in the wake of human vandalism and rapid occupation of wild habitats by people who, by each passing day, have been encroaching upon the wild habitat in the name of development and progress!
The term “cat” refers both to felids in general and specifically to the domestic cat (Feliscatus) and the wild-cat is the name for the non-domesticated felids. Cats are a group of carnivores evolved over the ages to predate in nature. Cats have retractile claws, slender muscular bodies and strong flexible forelimbs. Their teeth and facial muscles allow for a powerful bite.
They are all obligate carnivores and solitary predators ambushing or stalking their prey. Wild cats are founds in Africa, Europe, Asia and the Americas. Some wild cat species are adapted to forest habitats, some to arid environments, and a few also to wetlands and mountainous terrain. Their activity patterns range from nocturnal and crepuscular to diurnal, depending on their preferred prey species. The body size of these animals vary considerably and each species goes for a prey of size commensurate with its own. Adaptations are readily dissemble in spatio-temporal utilization of habitat and prey selection, which prevents overlapping of the different realised niches, thus reducing the propensity of interspecific strife.
These adaptation specializations are supplemented by an efficient, inbuilt predatory mechanism which shows considerable uniformity amongst the fields, thus highlighting the evolutionary traits of the entire group as predators. These include- coat colorations for camouflage, acute vision, unique proficiency in stalking and ambushing aided by excellent poise and the ability for sudden outburst of activity. Structure of the teeth and jaw, size and shape of the cranium and the development of powerful limbs and paws for catching and shearing the prey, all contribute to the powerful and effective predatory mechanism. As a result of all this, the cats gradually became the masters of their environment and appropriated a wide range of prey found in diverse habitat conditions all over the earth.
Cats are the ‘terminal consumers’ in the ecological food chain, and the welfare of the cats depend upon the productivity of the whole ecosystem. Conversely, the status of the naturally occurring wild cats serves as a good indicator of the status of wilderness.
The status of the felids in the present age is not encouraging. These animals are struggling for their very existence and the excellent stalking mechanism has become useless in a habitat which is devoid of viable cover or prey animals; the numerous morphological and behavioural attributes no longer ensure the survival of these species. On the contrary, these have started to act to their own disadvantage as the rapid wilderness shrinkage and a steep increase in human population, having various priorities with multifarious demands on the land, have ushered in a process of ecological dislocation.
Many magnificent cat populations are dwindling owing to loss of adequate habitat and prey base, whereas others earn the wrath, of the masses owing to their conflict with mankind as man-eaters and cattle-lifters; still others fall an easy prey to the onslaught of poachers. India, at least, has seen the extinction of one of the finest cats- namely the Asiatic cheetah (Acininyxjubatusvenaticus). This animal was fairly common at the turn of the century, but has been eliminated in the early part of the present century, since the species could be readily tamed and the rapid loss of the natural viable population.
Truly, most of the felines are threatened today and no longer one can regard them as the masters of their environment, which has already undergone considerable ecological degeneration. There is an urgent need to know more about the cats; while the data available on the larger acts are sketch, the less conspicuous ones are as intriguing as ever, since very little is known about them except for some observations done on the captive ones.
The environmental variables and the habitat pre-requisites essential for the survival of the various cat species must be understood clearly, which alone would enable us to save these species from the after effects of various human activities. Our country has undertaken one of the most meaningful conservation programmes by launching the “Project Tiger”, by which we can complement the effort by saving some of the lesser felines by knowing their present status and distribution, and accordingly making suitable managerial prescriptions.
The writer is Lecturer ‘Zoology’ at Govt. Degree College, Bijbehara (firstname.lastname@example.org)