India is known for its deep jungles and Bengal tigers, but there’s so much more to discover. In fact, this country has fifteen different species of wild cats living in its mountains, deserts, and forests. Both the largest and the smallest cat species alive today live there. Here are the fifteen species of cats living in India, broken into a list of 5 large wild cats, 7 medium wild cats, and 3 small wild cats.
The 5 Large Wild Cats of India:
1. Bengal Tiger
The national animal of India, Bengal tigers have become a powerful symbol of the country. Although small populations exist in neighboring countries, the bulk of the world’s 2,500-3,000 wild tigers live in India. These powerful animals are the biggest species of cat alive today, with males sometimes reaching over 500 pounds. Their distinctive orange and black stripes might seem showy, but in tall grass, they mimic the patterns of sunlight and shadow, helping the Bengal tiger to hunt wild deer, pigs, and other prey.
2. Indian Leopard
The Indian leopard is a strong, stealthy hunter of the trees. These cats are highly agile and adaptable, spreading further into urban areas than any other big cat and living across a range of environments. They prefer to ambush prey from above and drag meals high up into the trees, where few animals can challenge them for their meal. Although most leopards have tan fur with black rosettes, dark-furred mutations aren’t uncommon either. Black leopard sightings have been common throughout India for centuries.
3. Snow Leopard
High in the Himalayan mountains, another big cat rules the snow. Snow leopards have thick, light-colored fur with darker rosettes and long, fluffy tails that help them balance in the steep mountains. They are the largest high-altitude predator in the world, sometimes traveling higher than 19,000 feet above sea level. Because of their unique adaptations, they have little competition from other large predators, but habitat loss still remains a threat.
4. Clouded Leopard
The smallest of the big cats, clouded leopards reach up to 50 pounds. in weight, but they are still impressive hunters. Originally thought to be a cousin of the leopard, new research shows they are actually more closely related to snow leopards and tigers. These cats have coats spangled with cloudy “rings” and live in rainforests across India. Their large claws help them climb from tree to tree with ease.
5. Asiatic Lion
You expect to find lions in Africa, but the Asiatic subspecies calls India home. This makes India the only country in the world with tigers, lions, and leopards. About 600 lions remain in India, and the subspecies is considered endangered, mostly surviving in one national park. These lions are closely related to the African lion, but the separate population does have some differences, including less shaggy manes on the males. Environmental protections have helped stabilize this population, but more work is needed to help them thrive.
The 7 Medium Wild Cats of India:
6. Asian Golden Cat
The Asian golden cat is often said to resemble a small cougar or puma, with buff-colored fur, a lithe body, and a long tail. Dark stripes and spots on its face and tail make it easy to identify. It weighs up to 20 pounds, making it two or three times larger than a house cat. They are aggressive hunters that often capture relatively large prey, including wild sheep and goats, and are difficult to see because they are almost exclusively nocturnal.
With long legs and ears, the caracal is a striking—but rare—sight. Although these cats aren’t believed to be endangered, they live in remote environments and are difficult to track down, with most researchers today using camera traps to study them. It is sometimes known as the “desert lynx” because of the long, black tufts on its ears. These cats are found in many parts throughout Africa, the Middle East, and Southern Asia, including India.
8. Pallas Cat
If you see a cat that looks like a distinguished old man, you’ve probably met a Pallas’s cat. These cats have gray ticked coats of long, shaggy fur, and small ears that are often nearly hidden by fur. They are about the size of a domestic cat and are found in many countries throughout the south of Asia. These cats can be kept comfortably in captivity, so they are one of the most common wild cats found in zoos today. That means your chances of seeing a Pallas cat in real life are fairly high—even if it’s hard to track them down in the wild.
9. Jungle Cat
Despite the name, jungle cats generally shun rainforests and other wooded areas—in fact, their alternate names of swamp cat and reed cat are much more accurate. This cat species has sandy-colored fur that helps it blend into its habitat of wetlands, riverbanks, and grasslands, where it likes to hunt birds, lizards, and frogs along with other similarly sized prey. These cats are among India’s most common wild cats and can often be seen in rural areas at night.
10. Fishing Cat
Domestic cats hate water, but the fishing cat loves it. These cats are adapted to life in wet areas, and they get most of their food from fish and other marine sources. Fishing cats have a double layer of spotted fur, with a dense inner layer helping them stay warm and a glossy outer coat that is adapted to the water. They also have slightly webbed feet. They prefer to hunt in lakes and wetlands, although some do hunt in moving water as well.
11. Asiatic Wildcat
If you were to see an Asiatic wildcat, also called a desert cat, at a glance, you probably wouldn’t think twice. These cats are among the closest living relatives of modern cats and are about the same size and build. Their spotted coat would mark them as unusual, however. They also have some adaptations to living in harsh deserts, like furry feet that prevent their paw pads from scorching. In the wild, they eat a variety of birds and mammals, including wild peacocks.
12. Eurasian Lynx
The Eurasian lynx has a far-flung habitat that stretches from Scandinavia all the way to Southeast Asia, including territory in India. They live in forests and steppe lands in northern India, including in the Himalayas, but they are only rarely seen. You can recognize them because of their shortened tails and tufted ears.
The 3 Small Wild Cats of India:
13. Asian Leopard Cat
The Asian leopard cat is slightly smaller than a domestic cat, weighing around 8 lbs. when fully grown. They get their name from the beautiful spotted coat they sport, which does indeed look like a miniature leopard’s coat. That coat has made them famous in another way, too—successful crossbreeding experiments with the domestic cat have led to the Bengal. This breed of cat is the most common domestic/wild hybrid cat, bringing some of the leopard cat’s wild beauty into homes around the world.
14. Marbled Cat
Marbled cats are only about the size of a domestic cat, but they closely resemble clouded leopards in coloring. They live in forested areas and have strong claws that help them climb trees—in fact, it’s thought they spend more time in the trees than on the ground. They have very long tails, taking up about half their body length, that help them to balance while climbing. These cats are elusive and rarely seen, but it’s thought that more than 10,000 of them are hiding in forests and jungles across southern Asia.
15. Rusty-Spotted Cat
India is home to the smallest cat species in the world, the rusty-spotted cat. These cats are found only in India and Sri Lanka, and they never grow beyond a kittenish size. Adults weigh about three pounds, with big green or yellow eyes that add to the kittenish appearance. They can reach about 20 inches long, with their tails accounting for half that length. As the name suggests, they have rust-colored fur with faint spots. These tiny cats survive in relatively high numbers today, but much of their habitat is in danger of destruction, threatening their future.
India’s native cat population is one of the most diverse in the world. The wild cats of India live everywhere from frigid mountains to steamy swamps, and eat everything from tiny grasshoppers to wild hogs. With such a diverse array of species, it’s vital that India’s wild lands are protected. Habitat destruction threatens many species on this list, but conservation efforts have paid dividends, showing that there is still hope for India’s wild cats.
Featured Image Credit: Uschi Dugulin, Pixabay