Syah-gosh — ever since I first heard it, the name has always fascinated and intrigued me. It always seems to carry a strange aura of mystique around it. It is only fair then that the name belongs to, arguably, the least-known cat species of India, the caracal, ‘the black-eared one’ (‘syah’ means black in Persian, and ‘gosh’ means ear). Equally fascinating and intriguing to me is the arcane wilderness of east-central India. The information black hole about an overwhelming majority of these forests, in terms of the most baseline data on their faunal riches, ensconces them in a shroud of mystery. And so, unsurprisingly perhaps, I often find myself poring through the yellowing pages of old books and documents, searching for clues to unravel the hazy tracks of the syah cat in the enigmatic sal forests of east-central India.
For a wild cat as widely distributed — ranging from South Africa to the Satpuras in India, and the cold deserts of Central Asia to the coasts of Turkey — the caracal is a remarkably understudied feline, especially in the Asian range countries. The Indian subcontinent forms the easternmost extension of the caracal’s geographical range, and the east-central Indian forests of Chhattisgarh, eastern Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, and Orissa in turn form their easternmost limit within the subcontinent.
Syah-gosh remains the most popular and well-documented vernacular name for the cat across the Indian subcontinent, perhaps because this was the name they were referred to by many princes and nobles who used them for hunting. The ‘sport’ of hunting by trained caracals was often a sideshow to the primary ‘sport’ of coursing with, now extinct, cheetahs. However, apart from syah-gosh, there is a rich legacy of other obscure local names for this medium-sized wild cat with its distinctive erect tuft of syah hair, on its gosh or ear, and a coat with shades varying from reddish-fawn to tawny and dull sandy hues. Finding and ticking off these local names gives a good idea of its distribution within the subcontinent. The Sindhis referred to it as the phenkari, while it is known as mor maar bagheri (peacock-killing wild cat) in Rajasthan. The Kutchis christened the secretive cat harnotro, the slayer of chinkaras and female blackbucks (both of whom have a coat-colour resembling that of the caracal). In Marathi-speaking country, it was known as jhuva, while the Gujaratis named it hayantra. Perhaps the most accurate, even if generalist, description of the geographical spread of the ‘red lynx’ — a common, albeit taxonomically incorrect by modern standards, alternative name for the caracal used during the British days — within the subcontinent is provided by the British naturalist WT Blanford in his book The Fauna of British India, Including Ceylon and Burma: Mammalia. “Found in the Punjab, Sind, North-western and Central India, and the greater part of Peninsula except the Malabar coast, but rare everywhere,” he wrote of the caracal.
There is a fair bit to write on the caracal’s distribution in northwestern India, especially Rajasthan and Gujarat where it is still seen, albeit rarely. While they are now reported extinct from their erstwhile well-known habitat in Sariska Tiger Reserve, Ranthambore Tiger Reserve still throws up an odd sighting every now and then, and there was a recent video, floating on social media sites, of a caracal rescued from a well in Kutch. However, they seem to have disappeared from central India. The Ujjain Circle of the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department, along with Madhya Pradesh Tiger Foundation Society, recently launched a public campaign with a poster inviting the public to bring to their notice any news on sightings of the cryptic cat since the last one they had officially recorded in 2007 in Bhind. Do they survive further east of Madhya Pradesh today? Nobody knows, but they were once definitely infrequently encountered in these areas.
There are three contenders for the easternmost record of the species in India. One from Sambalpur in Odisha, one from Hazaribagh in Jharkhand, and the third record of their occurrence is in the Northern Circars, in present-day Andhra Pradesh. The British naturalist TC Jerdon wrote in 1874: “This handsome animal is found, though rarely, in many parts of India. I have had it from the Northern Circars on the east coast.” Edward Blyth, British Zoologist and curator of the Asiatic Society of India museum recorded one in princely state of Jeypore, now part of Koraput district in Odisha and not very far from the Northern Circars landscape. Jerdon also recorded obtaining caracals from “the Neermul jungles between Hyderabad and Nagpore,” and from the forests around Mhow in present-day Madhya Pradesh.
While Blyth recorded a caracal from Koraput, LSS O’Malley, a British civil servant, recorded their presence in erstwhile Sambalpur (the British-era district of Sambalpur district has now been split up into three districts — Jharsuguda, Sambalpur, and Bargarh). “The red lynx (Felis caracal), though very rare, has been seen and identified on more than one occasion. It is found in the south-west of the district, and one is known to have been run-down with dogs a mile to the east of Sambalpur,” he wrote in 1909.
There was yet another record of the cat, though vague, in the Statesman, on the sighting of a caracal in Mayurbhanj district in 1962.
The presence of caracals in the Chota Nagpur plateau, the bulk of which is now within the boundaries of the state of Jharkhand, was first described by Valentine Ball, a famous geologist of the Geological Survey of India, and an accomplished ornithologist. In a note titled “On the Avifauna of Chutia (Chota) Nagpur Division, S.W. Frontier of Bengal” published in 1874 in Stray Feathers, a seminal journal of ornithology in India and edited by AO Hume, Ball had a short paragraph on the mammalian fauna of the division, wherein he wrote the following: “The Lynx (Felis caracal) I have once seen. It seems to be extremely rare”. However, Ball did not mention exactly where in the British division of Chotanagpur he came across the caracal. The next reference to the presence of the caracal from this landscape comes in 1957. In a short note titled “The Present Status of the Indian Lynx” published in the Journal of Bombay Natural History Society, NN Sen, who was Chief Conservator of Forests, Rajasthan implored — much like the Madhya Pradesh officers do today — readers of the journal, members of BNHS, and general public at large, to provide more information on this cat. “Is the Indian Lynx (Caracal caracal) disappearing from our forests? Would your readers kindly enlighten me through your journal when and where this animal has been seen during the last 3-4 years? This animal was been seen by me in Hazaribagh National Park in Bihar in December 1957 and by Shri K. S. Sankhala, Divisional Forest Officer, Jaipur, in Sariska Game Sanctuary in Rajasthan on 31 October 1958,” he wrote.
Once I managed to locate the records of the caracal’s presence in Odisha and Jharkhand, it was only fair to look for clues of its presence west of these locations — after all, those caracals couldn’t have air-dropped themselves into Hazaribagh or Koraput or Sambalpur. The closest reports of caracals west of Hazaribagh were from Mirzapur in eastern Uttar Pradesh, a district not very far from the borders of Jharkhand. With its open scrub forests, which exist to date, it definitely was an ideal habitat for caracals.
Perhaps the earliest and most notable record of caracals from Mirzapur is the one by GO Allen, the commissioner of the district, who mistakenly shot one in 1912. “On 28th December 1912, during a sambhar (sic) beat in light jungle about 25 miles S. of the Ganges, a small animal that I did not recognize came out at very close range. I blew a large piece of its back away with a 500 Express but it made off and took refuge in a small nala where it was shortly afterwards despatched with a shotgun. It proved to be a female lynx (F caracal) My measurement made it 34 inches long (body 27 and tail 7) apparently a rather small example…This is considered locally a distinctly rare animal,” he wrote. The Mirzapur District Gazetteer authored by DL Drake-Brockman in 1911 also recorded the presence of caracals in the district, making note of the fact that “Lynx are rare.” There is a very interesting record of a caracal attacking a man in Mirzapur, though it was suspected that this was because that particular individual was either very emaciated or diseased — the only two possible rational explanations for a cat the size of a caracal trying to grab hold of something that clearly was too large in size to be treated as a possible prey! Mirzapur’s tryst with caracals continued till much later, including the very interesting recovery of two caracal kittens by the Divisional Forest Officer of Mirzapur in 1975.
West of Koraput and Sambalpur, in present day Chhattisgarh, a few rare records of caracal presence do exist. An obscure gazetteer on the ‘Chhattisgarh Feudatory States’ published in 1909 records their presence in Bastar. “Caracal (Felis caracal) are found…in the north-west [portions of the princely state of Bastar].” Interestingly, this gazetteer also records what to my knowledge is the only record of hunting and consumption of caracals by humans for its meat. “The caracal…are eaten, not being considered members of the cat-tribe by the aborigines.” A few hundred kilometres west of Bastar, in southeast Madhya Pradesh almost at the trijunction of the state with Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh, lies Seoni. Here, Robert Armitage Sterndale, a pioneer naturalist, sportsman, artist, writer, and among the earliest editors of the Journal of Bombay Natural History Society recorded raising a young caracal cub he had caught from the wild, in his 1884 book Natural History of the Mammalia of India and Ceylon.
While the forests of Amravati might not exactly be in east-central India, I will nonetheless include a little snippet on caracal records from this region. The earliest record of presence of caracals in present-day Maharashtra comes from the old district gazetteer of Amravati published in 1911, which recorded the presence of the shy cat in the district. Categorising it as “very rare,” the gazetteer also gave the Marathi name for the species — jhuva or jhua. Then, 75 years later, in 1986, Dr MK Ranjitsinh suggested the possibility of the caracal’s existence in the district’s Melghat Tiger Reserve. While no photographic evidence has been obtained, caracals have been reportedly sighted by experienced forest officers in the Dhakna and Ghatang ranges of the reserve. Korku tribals were reported as not only positively identifying the species, but also revealing the native name for the cat, “bada manu”. Interestingly, a sighting of the cat was also reported from the Navegaon wildlife sanctuary in the 1990s, while a deputy range officer in the Satpura Tiger Reserve told me about his chance sighting of a caracal in the late 2000s.
There is much more to write on this wild cat, that truly is the one supreme ghost of the Indian wilderness. There are debates on its presence in Tibet and Kashmir, interesting records of caracals in Dehradun, and chronicles of the unique ‘sport’ of hunting with caracals, a peculiar mode of recreation, especially popular among the nobility of peninsular India, throughout the medieval era right until the eve of independence. But those are stories for another day.