The smallest cat in the world, the rusty, like its name suggests, is only about the size of a six month old domestic cat, and has has short brownish-grey fur, overlaid by a rufous hue – though in Sri Lanka, it has a more russet colour. The cat’s face has two dark streaks that run along each cheek and four stripes extending above its eyes, back towards between the ears and then down along the shoulders, eventually tapering off to elongated spots. These elongated spots can also be seen along its flanks as very faint rusty-brown spots and blotches. Its throat, chest and belly are stark white, and marked with large black spots and bars, much like that of a leopard. It has small rounded ears, black soled feet, and a tail that is just above half its body length.
Behaviour and Reproduction
Like the fishing cat, there is little known about the social structure and behaviour of these cats. The species is generally considered terrestrial, but show strong arboreal tendencies. When the Frankfurt Zoo brought in their first rusty-spotted cats, they were thought to be nocturnal, since most of the sightings were at night, early dawn or late evening. However, once the cats were placed in a nocturnal environment and after closely monitoring their behaviour, the keepers learned that the species might not be strictly nocturnal or crepuscular. They also learned that sexually active animals were more active during the day.
In captivity, rusty-spotted cats mate throughout the year, and captive data shows that mating activities begin anywhere between 1 to 72 days after introducing two new individuals to each other, and the activities last between 1 to 11 days, and like all other small cats, it includes straddling and a nape bite. Gestation lasts between 67 to 71 days. In Sri Lanka, captive females were observed giving birth under rock cliffs and tree hollows, where as females in the Frankfurt Zoo chose spots that were on the ground. Each litter consists of 1 to 3 kittens, and these newborn kittens weigh approximately 46g.
Communication between rusties are primarily scent oriented, with both males and females marking their territory by spraying urine for scent marking.
The species was believed to be restricted to India and Sri Lanka, but recent photo evidence shows rusty-spotted cats recorded in Bardia National Park, Nepal.
Rusty-spotted cats are native to India (Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Jammu-Kashmir, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Uttaranchal, Uttar Pradesh), Nepal and Sri Lanka.
It is difficult to plot the overall population size of rusty spotted cats, or map the connections between populations, threats and persistence of this species, since information is very scarce and incidental. However, the rusty does seem to be rare in all its range countries.
Habitat and Ecology
Though the species is found close to human habitation, studies suggest that the cat’s distribution is limited by large contiguous tracts of hostile habitat comprising of intensive, irrigated agriculture. In India, prime habitat, though fragmented, is made up of dry and moist deciduous forests.
In Sri Lanka, the species has been recorded from the Central Highlands to the Southern rainforests.
There are a few observations that suggest that the species preys on rodents.
The spread of cultivation and the habitat loss it brings with it, is the most serious threat faced by the species in South Asia. In India and Nepal alone, the total extent prime habitat is around 25% of the species’ total range in the two countries. These areas will perhaps be where the populations persist in the future, making 75% of the current habitat in the two countries in danger of being converted into urban areas, industrial zones, mines and other environments that are hostile to wildlife. Many parts of the species’ habitat is being converted into solar plants and alternative energy sources. The loss of all this habitat could be devastating to the species, as it could bring the current population down by 20-25% over the next three generations. This is particularly worrying, as Sri Lanka’s mainland rusty-spotted cat population makes up about 90% of the total global population.
With the rapid rate of habitat fragmentation caused by expanding human-dominated areas and rapid changes in land use, disease should also be considered as a major threat to the species.
Hybridisation with domestic cats may also a concern, but this has yet to be determined as a major threat.
It is a general consensus that the species does not come into conflict with humans for preying on poultry. However, this claim still needs to be backed by research.
In Sri Lanka, the rusty-spotted cat is protected in the Fauna and Flora Protection (Amendment) Act, No. 22 of 2009, under Schedule ll, which lists the species as a strictly protected mammal.
The species is fully protected in most of its range, and hunting and trade of the animal banned in India and Sri Lanka. Though there is no recent data on domestic trade, but there was a high percentage of it in Sri Lanka during the late 1990’s.
Seeing that there is very little information on the species, rusty-spotted cats should be prioritised for research and monitoring in the future.
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