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The Big Seven cats

  • Published
    16th Sep, 2022
Context

The latest positive development of re-introduction of Cheetah in India makes it important to know about the ‘seven big cats’ around the world.

Tiger, lion, leopard, and snow leopard are found in India.

The Seven Big Cats are:

  1. Tiger
  2. Lion
  3. Jaguar
  4. Leopard
  5. Snow leopard
  6. Cougar
  7. Cheetah

About

Tiger (Panthera Tigris)

  • Tiger, (Panthera tigris) is the largest member of the cat family (Felidae) and also the earliest Panthera member to exist.
  • Primarily a forest animal, they range from the Siberian taiga to the Sunderban delta.
  • In the wild, tigers are found in India, Nepal, China, Russia, Bhutan, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, Sumatra (Indonesia) and Malaysia.
  • It is the national animal of India, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and South Korea.
  • Status: Endangered

The five surviving sub species of tiger are 

  • Indian Tiger or Royal Bengal Tiger(Panthera tigris tigris) found in India, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh; 
  • Indo-Chinese tiger(Panthera tigris corbetti) mainly found in Thailand and Peninsular Malaysia but are also found in Myanmar, Southern China, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam; 
  • Siberian or Amur Tiger(Panthera tigris altaica) found in far east Russia;
  • Sumatran Tiger(Panthera tigris sumatrae) found in the Indonesian island of Sumatra; 
  • South China Tiger (Panthera tigris amoyensis) found in China. The population found in Peninsular Malaysia has been given a status of separate sub species Panthera tigris jacksoni. 

  • The three sub species of tigers that became extinct in the past century are:
    • the Bali Tiger (Panthera tigris balica) 
    • the Javan Tiger (Panthera tigris sondaica) 
    • the Caspian Tiger (Panthera tigris virgata)

Lion (Panthera Leo)

  • Lions are known as the "king of beasts" or king of the jungle". They are the second largest cats in the world after tigers.
  • The lion is the most social cat, and lives in groups called prides. They prefer open forests such as scrubland.
  • There are two broad types of lions: the African lion and the endangered Asiatic lion
  • In 2020, the population of Asiatic lions has increased by almost 29% in Gujarat's Gir forests.
  • The lion is arguably the most widely recognised animal symbol in human culture — be it the Ashoka pillar in Sarnath, the main entrance to Buckingham Palace, or the 20th Century Fox and MGM logo.

Jaguar (Panthera Onca)

  • The largest cat in the Americas, the Jaguar has the strongest bite force of all wild cats, enabling it to bite directly through the skull of its prey.
  • Melanistic (black) Jaguars are common and are often called black panthers.
  • Jaguars are found in South and Central America, preferring wet lowland habitats, swampy savannas, and tropical rain forests.
  • The jaguar is listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red Listacross its entire range.
  • The jaguar is the most water-loving cat in the big cat family.

Leopard (Panthera Pardus)

  • The leopard is similar in appearance to the jaguar but has a smaller and lighter physique.
  • The spots on its coat are smaller and more densely packed than those of the jaguar.
  • The leopard has the widest distribution range of all wild cats.
  • The leopard is under threat and listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red Listacross its range.

Snow leopard (Panthera Uncia)

  • Snow leopards (Panthera uncia) are considered medium-sized cats, standing about 24 inches at the shoulder and weighing around 30-55kg.
  • Status:The snow leopard is listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN-World Conservation Union’s Red List of the Threatened Species.
    • In addition, the snow leopard, like all big cats, is listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), which makes trading of animal body parts (i.e., fur, bones and meat) illegal in signatory countries.
    • It is also protected by several national laws in its range countries.
  • Habitat:Snow leopards can be found throughout high mountain ranges, including the Himalayas and the southern Siberian Mountains in Russia.
    • They can also be found in the Tibetan Plateau and across a range that stretches from China to the mountains of Central Asia.
    • In India, their geographical range encompasses a large part of the western Himalayas including the states of Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh in the eastern Himalayas. 
    • The snow leopard is the state animal of Ladakh and Himachal Pradesh.

Cougar (Puma concolor)

  • Closely related to the domestic cat, this genus has only one extant species, the cougar.
  • The cougar is the second-largest cat in the Americas. (The Jaguar is the largest.)
  • Cougars are also called ‘mountain lion’ and ‘panther’ across their range from the Canadian Yukon to the Southern Andes.
  • Concolor is latin for “of uniform colour”.
  • Status: Least Concern


Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)

  • The cheetah, Acinonyx jubatus, is one of the oldest of the big cat species, with ancestors that can be traced back more than five million years to the Miocene era.
  • The cheetah is also the world’s fastest land mammal.
  • It is listed as vulnerable in IUCN red listed species.
  • The country’s last spotted feline died in Chhattisgarh in 1947. Later, the cheetah — which is the fastest land animal — was declared extinct in India in 1952.
  • The Asiatic cheetah is classified as a “critically endangered” species by the IUCN Red List, and is believed to survive only in Iran.
  • The cheetah is the only cat without retractable claws.

How cheetahs went extinct in India?

  • The cheetah is the only large carnivore to have gone extinct in India, primarily due to hunting and habitat loss.
  • Maharaja Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo of Korea, Madhya Pradesh, is widely believed to have killed the last three recorded cheetahs in India in 1947.
  • In 1952, the Indian government officially declared the Cheetah extinct in the country.

Cheetah in Indian History:

  • The earliest available record for cheetahs being used for hunts in India, comes from the 12th century Sanskrit text Manasollasa, which was produced by the KalyaniChalukya rulerSomeshvara III (reigned from 1127-1138 CE).
  • According to the wildlife expert, “Cheetah coursing” or the use of trained cheetahs for hunting had become a highly specialized activity in the medieval period and was carried out on a large scale during the Mughal Empire.
  • Emperor Akbar, who reigned from 1556-1605, was particularly fond of the activity and is recorded to have collected 9,000 cheetahs in total.
  • AbulFazl, Akbar’s chief courtier, noted that the emperor had devised a new method to capture cheetahs. Akbar is said to have used shallow pits with an automatic trap door which would close after they fell inside.
  • The capture of wild cheetahs for hunting and the difficulty to breed them in captivity was leading to a decline in the cheetah population, even before the entry of the British.
  • Unlike the Mughals, the British were not very interested in coursing with the cheetahs. Rather, they preferred to hunt big game, such as tigers, bison and elephants.
  • Under the British Raj, forests were extensively cleared, so as to develop settlements and to set up indigo, tea and coffee plantations.
  • This further resulted in the loss of habitat for big cats, contributing to their decline.
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