The Indian desert cat (felis silvestris ornata) survives in one of the most difficult terrains of the Thar desert. These graceful desert cats are well adapted to the extremes of the desert environment, and are tolerant of extreme scorching and freezing temperatures typical of deserts.
The Asiatic wild cat is probably a more appropriate name for these cats because ornata is one of the subspecies of felis silvestris, which is popularly known as wild cat. Asiatic wild cats are found in India, China, Pakistan, Kazakhstan and Mongolia. In India, they are found only in two states — Rajasthan and Gujarat.
Usually, all cats are elusive and mysterious, so is the Asiatic wild cat. However, this monsoon, I was fortunate to observe many interesting behaviours of this cat in the desert area of Rajasthan. It resembles a domestic cat, but its colour is paler and legs are a bit longer. Also, hybridisation with domestic cats is considered a big threat for this cat species.
One evening on a desert trail, I saw a desert cat watching out from its burrow in a dune. Upon it, a flock of common babblers were calling to alert each other. Thus, the noisy surrounding forced the cat to hide. The flock of common babblers left the place and the cat again tried to come out. But this time, a small bird — rufous fronted prinia — started calling and the flock of common babblers came back with their loud chirpings.
However, the drama got over in a while and she came out with confidence (often cats communicate this with a raised straight tail) and later disappeared into the bushes. Maybe the birds have persuaded them to become night-time hunters, in addition to the scorching sunlight and burning sand of dunes. But during monsoon and winter, I have seen them very active during the day too possibly due to suitable temperature and availability of ample prey. Desert gird, spiny tailed lizard and the ground birds are their main prey and all are active only during the day. These cats can devour snakes such as cobra and saw scaled viper also.
Desert gird — a desert rodent — usually makes colonies and their burrow openings on sand dunes look like honeycombs. The hollow trunk of desert tree species such as prosopis cineraria provides shelter as well as a good vantage point to the cat. Sometimes the Asiatic wild cat makes their den close to such rodent colonies, but they usually do not dig their burrow to find prey like desert foxes. In one such instance, I saw this cat watching a gird near its burrow sitting in her den, which was hardly 6-8 feet away. The alert gird was also aware about the cat’s presence, but she did not waste her energy for the extremely alert gird. It utilises its energy on ambushing and suddenly striking a prey, since an alert prey is not worth an attempt.
Among the many inhabitants of the desert, the desert cat is an intelligent predator and stunning to look at. The mysterious cat has enthralled me with its poise and cleverness, however, a lot more still remains to be explored about the species.