Jungle Cat (Felis chaus)

Description

The jungle cat (Felis chaus) is a medium-sized cat native to Asia from southern China in the east through Southeast and Central Asia to the Nile Valley in the west. It is listed as Least Concern in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as it is widespread and common particularly in India. Population declines and range contraction are of concern, particularly in Egypt, in the Caucasus, and in southwestern, Central and Southeast Asia. Geographic variation in the jungle cat is quite considerable. Due to the small tuft on the ears it is also called the jungle lynx but is not a member of the Lynx genus. Sometimes more than twice as heavy as domestic cat, this species rivals the Chinese mountain cat as the largest member of the Felis genus. True to Bergmann's Rule, the species becomes smaller-bodied closer to the tropics and largest at the northern limits of the range. Jungle cats can range from 50 to 94 cm (20 to 37 in) in length, plus a relatively short 20 to 31 cm (7.9 to 12 in) tail, and stand about 36 cm (14 in) tall. Weight varies across the range from 3 to 16 kg (6.6 to 35 lb), with a median weight of around 8 kg (18 lb). Females are slightly smaller than males. Males are slightly larger than females. The face is relatively slender. Because of its long legs and short tail, and (in winter a tuft of black hair on its ears, this cat resembles a small lynx. The colour of the fur varies with subspecies, yellowish-grey to reddish-brown or tawny-grey, and is ticked with black. Vertical bars are visible on the fur of kittens, which disappear in adult cats, although a few dark markings may be retained on the limbs or tail. The muzzle is white, and the underside is paler in colour than the rest of the body. The skull is fairly broad in the region of the zygomatic arch, which leads to its appearance of having a rounder head than some other cats. The ears are quite long, and relatively broad at the base, pointed towards the end, and set quite high. Small tuft of long hairs occurs on ear tips in winter. These hairs form an indistinct tassel ranging from 7 to 20 mm (0.28 to 0.79 in) in length. The fur grows to about 4000 hairs/cm² on the back, and 1700 hairs/cm² on the abdomen, and generally becomes a shade of greyish-ochre in winter. The paw prints measure about 5×6 cm, and a typical pace is 29 to 32 cm (11 to 13 in). The most distinctive feature of a jungle cat is the presence of equal-sized claws on both fore and hind legs (unlike those of common domestic cats, for example, where hind claws are normally longer and stronger than fore). These allow it to climb down trees as easily as up, with its head facing downward.

 

Distribution and habitat

Jungle cats are largely oriental in distribution and found in Egypt, West and Central Asia, but also in South Asia, Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. In India they are the most common small cats among the felidae found there. They inhabit savannas, tropical dry forests and reed beds along rivers and lakes in the lowlands, but, despite the name, are not found in rainforests. Although they are adaptable animals, being found even in dry steppe, they prefer wetland environments with tall grasses or reeds in which to hide. They do not survive well in cold climates, and are not found in areas where winter snowfall is common. They have been observed from sea levels to altitudes of 8,000 ft (2,400 m) or perhaps higher in the Himalayas. They frequent jungles or open country, and are often seen in the neighbourhood of villages. Jungle cats were known to be absent from south of the Isthmus of Kra in the Malayan peninsula, the possibility of their occurrence was reported from a highly fragmented forest in the Malaysian state of Selangor in 2010. Although never truly domesticated, a small number of jungle cats have been found among the cat mummies of Ancient Egypt (the vast majority of which are domestic cats), suggesting that they may have been used to help control rodent populations.

 

Distribution of subspecies

When Johann Anton Güldenstädt travelled in the Russian empire's southern frontier during 1768–1775 at the behest of Catherine II of Russia, he was the first naturalist to catch sight of a Kirmyschak in the Caucasus. In his Latin description of 15 pages, published in 1776, he names the animal Chaus – a name retained for the cat by all subsequent zoologists.

Today, the trinomial Felis chaus chaus still refers to the jungle cat subspecies living in the Caucasus, Turkestan, Iran, Baluchistan and Yarkand, Chinese Turkestan. The other recognized subspecies are listed by year of first description:
Felis chaus affinis (Gray, 1830) − inhabits the Himalayan region ranging from Kashmir and Nepal to Sikkim and Yunnan.
Felis chaus kutas (Pearson, 1832) − ranges from Bengal westwards to Kutch.
Felis chaus nilotica (de Winton, 1898) − inhabits Egypt.
Felis chaus furax (de Winton, 1898) − inhabits Palestine, southern Syria, and Iraq.
Felis chaus fulvidina (Thomas, 1929) − inhabits Southeast Asia ranging from Myanmar and Thailand to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Felis chaus prateri (Pocock, 1939) − inhabits western India and Sindh.
Felis chaus kelaarti (Pocock, 1939) − lives in Sri Lanka and southern India south of the Kistna River.
Felis chaus oxiana (Heptner, 1969),lives along the right tributaries of the Amu Darya River, in the lower courses of the Vakhsh River ranging eastwards to the Gissar Valley and slightly beyond Dushanbe.

 

The jungle cat has a broad but patchy distribution. In Africa, it is found only in Egypt, along the Nile River Valley south to Aswan, and in El Faiyum, Farafara, Dakhla and Kharga oases (Glas in press). Into southwest Asia, it occurs through Israel, southern Lebanon, north-western Jordan, western Syria, and into Turkey and western Iraq (Abu-Baker et al., 2003). In this region its occurrence is highly localized around riparian vegetation and permanent water sources. In central Asia, it is found in the Caucasus mountains (up to 1,000 m), around the Caspian and Aral Seas and associated river valleys, and through Iran west to Pakistan. It occurs widely in tropical and sub-tropical Asia, including almost all of India as well as Sri Lanka, ranging up to 2,400 m in the Himalayan foothills, and through Southeast Asia to southern China, but absent from Malayan peninsula south of the Isthmus of Kra (Nowell and Jackson, 1996). Its range in Indochina is poorly known, especially in Myanmar. Duckworth et al. (2005) review the few historical distribution records from Indochina and add several recent ones from Lao PDR, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Countries: Native:
Afghanistan; Armenia (Armenia); Azerbaijan; Bangladesh; Bhutan; Cambodia; China; Egypt; Georgia; India; Iran, Islamic Republic of; Iraq; Israel; Jordan; Kazakhstan; Kyrgyzstan; Lao People's Democratic Republic; Lebanon; Myanmar; Nepal; Pakistan; Russian Federation; Sri Lanka; Syrian Arab Republic; Tajikistan; Thailand; Turkey; Turkmenistan; Uzbekistan; Vietnam

Population:

The jungle cat is considered common in some parts of its range, primarily in India (Mukherjee 1988), but also Pakistan and Bangladesh (Duckworth et al., 2005).

In southern China and Southeast Asia (with the exception of northeastern Cambodia), however, it appears quite rare in comparison to sympatric small cats (Duckworth et al. 2005). This rarity appears to be a relatively recent phenomenon associated with unselective trapping and snaring, especially in Lao PDR and Thailand as well, where it was described as common by Lekagul and McNeely (1977) but has since suffered drastic declines and is rarely encountered (Duckworth et al. 2005; Lynam et al. 2006, W. Duckworth and R. Steinmetz, Southeast Asia mammal assessment 2003).

In Europe, it is of marginal occurrence, with small populations in Cis-Caspian region and the Caucasus along the Caspian Sea. The European population has been rapidly declining since the 1960s. There was no records of this species in Astrakhan State Reserve (Russian Federation) since the 1980s. In Northern Ossetia (Russian Federation) only about 150 animals were recorded (Kuryatnikov and Varziev 1983). Marked population fluctuations are characteristic of this species in this region, probably because of absence of adaptations to cold winters. Despite these fluctuations the long-term trend in Europe is of decline in both population and area of occupancy. Data from Russia suggest that there are about 500 animals left in the wild (Prisazhnyuk and Belousova 2007). A very small population persists in Georgia (I. Macharashvili pers. comm. to K. Tsysulina 2007). This species is considered threatened in a number of range states in Europe and the Caucasus, and is included in the Red Books of the Russian Federation, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia (IUCN 2007).
In Southwest Asia the species is also considered rare and threatened (Abu-Baker et al. 2003, Habibi 2004).
Population Trend: Decreasing

Ecology

Jungle cats are solitary in nature. They rest in other animals' abandoned burrows, tree holes, and humid coves under swamp rocks, or in areas of dense vegetation. Although often active at night, they are less nocturnal than many other cats, and in cold weather may sun themselves during the day. They have been estimated to travel between 3 and 6 kilometres (1.9 and 3.7 mi) per night, although this likely varies depending on the availability of prey. Territories are maintained by urine spraying and scent marking. Jungle cats can climb trees. Like most cats, they utilize not only sight and hearing while hunting, but also their sense of smell. While running, they tend to sway from side to side. They mostly hunt for rodents, frogs, birds, hares, squirrels, juvenile wild pigs, as well as various reptiles, including turtles and snakes. Near human settlements, they feed on domestic chickens and ducks. They catch fish while diving, but mostly swim in order to disguise their scent trails, or to escape threats, such as dogs or humans. They are generally hard to tame, even if taken into captivity at a young age. Like most other cats, they hunt by stalking and ambushing their prey, and they use reeds or tall grass as cover. They are adept at leaping, and sometimes attempt to catch birds in flight. Although they can run at up to 32 kilometres per hour (20 mph), they rarely pursue prey that escapes their initial pounce. The jungle cat's main competitors are the jackal and forest cat. Their most common predators include crocodiles, bears, wolves, and other larger felines such as tigers. When countered by a threat, the jungle cat will vocalize before engaging in attack, producing small roars, a behavior uncommon for domestic cats. The meow of the jungle cat is also somewhat lower than that of a typical domestic cat. In some cases, they jump on their attacker, but will usually retreat upon encountering larger threats. There have been known cases of jungle cats attacking curious humans near their habitat, but their attack seems to pose no medical significance besides wound infection from clawing. They have been observed to be capable of swimming as much as 1.5 km at a time. Females are sexually mature at the age of 11 months; estrus appears to last from January through to mid-April. In males, spermatogenesis occurs mainly in February and March. In southern Turkmenistan, mating occurs in January to early February. Females give birth to litters of three to five kittens, usually only three. They sometimes raise two litters in a year. Gestation lasts 63–66 days and is remarkably short for an animal of this size. Birth generally takes place between December and June, depending on the local climate, although females can sometimes give birth to two litters in a year. Before birth, the mother prepares a den in an abandoned animal burrow, hollow tree, or reed bed. Kittens weigh 43 to 160 grams (1.5 to 5.6 oz) at birth, tending to be much smaller in the wild than in captivity. Initially blind and helpless, they open their eyes at ten to thirteen days of age, and are fully weaned by around three months. Males usually do not participate in the raising of kittens, but in captivity have been observed to be very protective of their offspring, more than the females, or males of other cat species. Kittens begin to catch their own prey at around six months, and leave the mother after eight or nine months. The jungle cat's median life expectancy in captivity is ten to twelve years. In the wild, however, some jungle cats have been known to live for as long as twenty years. The jungle cat, despite its name, is not strongly associated with the classic rainforest "jungle" habitat, but rather with wetlands - habitats with water and dense vegetative cover, especially reed swamps, marsh, and littoral and riparian environments. Hence its other common and more applicable name, the swamp cat. Water and dense ground cover can be found in a variety of habitats, ranging from desert (where it is found near oases or along riverbeds) to grassland, shrubby woodland and dry deciduous forest, as well as cleared areas in moist forest (Nowell and Jackson 1996). Areas with extensive deciduous dipterocarp forest and at least scattered surface water are the species predominant known habitat in Indochina. However, areas such as the Nakai Plateau which support other forms of savannah-like vegetation may support the species. It is probably absent from all closed canopy forests, including rainforest. The species may make use of agricultural areas with a low intensity of human use and which retain patches of scrub (Duckworth et al., 2005). Jungle cats have adapted well to irrigated cultivation, having been observed in many different types of agricultural and forest plantations throughout their range, such as sugar cane plantations in India. In Israel they can be found around pisciculture ponds and irrigation ditches. Vereschagin (1959) noted that the jungle cat's use of the semi-arid plains of Azerbaijan increased with the development of a local irrigation system and decreased with its abandonment. However, mowing the seasonally flooded riverine tugai vegetation (trees and shrubs with dense stands of tall reeds and grasses) of this region for livestock fodder, as well as ploughing it under for agriculture, is known to be associated with the decline of jungle cat populations in the European-central Asian parts of its range (Nowell and Jackson, 1996).  Jungle cats feed mainly on prey that weighs less than one kilogram. Small mammals, principally rodents, are the prey most frequently found in feces and stomach contents. A study in India's Sariska reserve estimated that jungle cats catch and eat three to five rodent per day (Mukherjee et al. 2004). Birds rank second in importance, but in southern Russia waterfowl are the mainstay of jungle cat diet in the winter. With over wintering populations of waterfowl congregating in large numbers on unfrozen rivers and marshes, the jungle cat hunts among reed beds and along edges of wetlands, searching for injured or weakened birds. Other prey species are taken more opportunistically, including hares, nutria, lizards, snakes, frogs, insects, and fish. In India, they have been seen to scavenge kills of large predators such as the Asiatic lion. In a study in southern Uzbekistan, the fruits of the Russian olive made up 17% of their diet in winter. While jungle cats specialize on small prey, they are large and powerful enough to kill young swine, subadult gazelles, and chital fawns (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002). Density estimates from natural tugai habitat in central Asia range from 4-15 individuals per 10 km², but where this vegetation type has declined due to development density does not exceed two cats per 10 km² (Nowell and Jackson, 1996).
Systems: Terrestrial

Threats

Some populations of jungle cat subspecies are declining in several countries and areas: Since the 1960s, populations of the Caucasian jungle cat living in the Cis-Caspian region, along the Caspian Sea and in the Caucasus range states have been rapidly declining. Only some small populations persist today. There has been no record in the Astrakhan Nature Reserve in the Volga Delta since the 1980s. This subspecies is considered threatened and included in the Red Books of the Russian Federation, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. In the 1970s, Southeast Asian jungle cats still used to be the most common wild cats near villages in certain parts of Northern Thailand and occurred in many protected areas of the country. But since the early 1990s, jungle cats are rarely encountered and have suffered drastic declines due to hunting and habitat destruction. Today, their official Thai status is critically endangered. In Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, jungle cats probably once occurred widely using secondary habitats, which is easily accessible to hunters and where hunting pressure is now very heavy. Due to unselective trapping and snaring, jungle cats appear quite rare nowadays in comparison to sympatric small cats. Skins are occasionally recorded in border markets, and live individuals, possibly taken from Myanmar or Cambodia, occasionally turn up in the Khao Khieo and Chiang Mai zoos of Thailand. Jungle cats are rare in the Middle East. In Jordan, they are highly affected by the expansion of agricultural areas around the river beds of Yarmouk and Jordan rivers, where they are hunted and poisoned by farmers for attacking poultry. In Afghanistan they are also considered rare and threatened. Jungle cats can do well in cultivated landscapes (especially those that lead to increased numbers of rodents) and artificial wetlands. However, reclamation and destruction of natural wetlands, ongoing throughout its range but particularly in the arid areas, still pose a threat to the species, as density in natural wetlands is generally higher (Nowell and Jackson 1996). Unselective trapping, snaring and poisoning around agricultural and settled areas have caused population declines in many areas throughout its range (Abu-Baker et al. 2003, Duckworth et al. 2005). India formerly exported large numbers of jungle cat skins before the species came under legal protection (over 300,000 were declared as being held by traders there when export was banned in 1979), and some illegal trade continues there (Sunquist and Sunquist 2002), as well as in Egypt (Glas in press) and Afghanistan (Habibi 2004).

Conservation Actions:

The jungle cat is listed on CITES Appendix II. It is protected from hunting in some range states (India), but in many receives no legal protection outside protected areas (Nowell and Jackson 1996). The species now receives legal protection from all hunting and trading within Afghanistan after being placed on the country’s 2009 Protected Species List. Furthermore, given the amount of habitat loss occurring in riparian and wetland areas in Afghanistan, this species should be considered a research priority. The ecology and status of the jungle cat is poorly known (Nowell and Jackson 1996, Sunquist and Sunquist 2002). In Southwest and Southeast Asia, where it is considered rare and declining, more research needs to be undertaken to gain knowledge of current distribution, both in and outside of protected areas (Abu-Baker et al. 2003, Duckworth et al. 2005). Some farmers consider the jungle cat a pest which takes poultry (Abu-Baker et al. 2003), and conservation measures should include better protection for domestic fowl and halting of indiscriminate poisoning and trapping. The jungle cat would also benefit from improved protection of natural wetlands and reed beds, particularly in the more arid parts of its range, and improved legislation prohibiting fur trade.

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