Each day social media churns out thousands of stunning animal and nature photos – wild tigers in every conceivable pose, snow leopards, leopards, elephants, rhinos, common and rare birds of all hues. But it is extremely rare to see a photo of a Caracal, known locally as Siyah Gosh, from India’s wild places. Even at the Ranthambore National Park, a magnet for both hobby and professional wildlife photographers, where there are 30-40 of these cats.

One of the 15 wildcat species found in the country, the elusive and enigmatic caracal, with characteristic tufted black ears, rarely make an appearance before the camera. But when it does it makes headlines. Like in February, when a caracal was photographed swimming in the river Chambal, by a tourist on a safari. The cat was crossing over from Morena, Madhya Pradesh (MP) to the Rajasthan side. In the recent past, an extensive survey in MP could not find even a trace of the cat and without a credible sighting for over 10 years the caracal was presumed to have gone locally extinct. The image not only renewed hope for the species in MP, but this was also the rarest behaviour to be ever recorded on camera.

Caracal: An Intimate History of Mysterious Cat by Dharmendra Khandal and Ishan Dhar is the first and definitive work exploring the Caracal’s biology and ecology, the fascinating history with humans, and the changes in its distribution over time in the country. Khandal and Dhar’s meticulous archival research combined with extensive field work makes this a compelling natural history read. Khandal has been a key member of the single largest camera trap exercise (2016-2020) for detection of Caracals from any habitat in India. In these pages one will also find a treasure trove of art works on the Caracal through the ages – like the exquisite Mughal miniatures (Akbar’s court paintings) and wall paintings from Kota, Dungarpur and Sirohi to mention a few. And on the lighter side there are some amazing stories of some ‘Caracal Diplomacy’ as well as from Akbar’s Tutinama – Tales of a Parrot – 52 fables illustrated in 250 miniatures where a Siyah Gosh deceives a lion.  

According to the authors, the Caracal was historically prized both on account of its perceived rarity and for its great utility as an animal of the hunt. “Rarely have we humans forged such a close association with a particular animal and yet known so pitifully little about it. In this book, we have pieced together all the information meticulously gathered, to construct as accurate a portrait as possible of the wild Caracal in India. The book is to unravel the mystery, and comprehensively record, for the very first time, the Caracal’s natural history as well as its historical relationship with man in India and beyond…In Asia, it served as the only cat other than the cheetah deployed on the royal hunt. It was a powerful symbol of prestige on account of its rarity, majesty, and raw athleticism. Never domesticated, the Caracal’s “wild” traits were the very reason it was so valued by the likes of Kublai Khan, Emperor Akbar, and even King George II of England. This animal was often present on the sidelines of events that changed the course of our history.”

The Caracal is one of the world’s most extensively distributed small wild cats ranging all the way from Southern Africa to Central India. In India, the Caracal was extensively used as a coursing animal from at least the 14th century until the mid-20th century. Yet, many naturalists also elaborated on the Caracal’s “rarity” in the wild in India since at least 1671 and continue to do so today. For a species of cat so widely distributed from Africa to Asia, with India as its easternmost extremity, the Caracal is frustratingly rare and it has never been possible to actively search for and locate one in the wild in India; sightings are usually fortuitous. This is quite surprising, considering it is the fourth most widely distributed cat species, found in 30 per cent of all nation-states. For the long-term camera trap exercise, the cat moves at the most unearthly hour – 2 to 3 am. 

This book is a heavyweight and an expensive one but a must have for your natural history collection. 

(The reviewer is an an award-winning writer, environmentalist and artist)

Check out the book here.

About the Book
Author: Dharmendra Khandal and Ishan Dhar
Publisher: Tiger Watch
Pages: 339
Price: ₹3,850
Caracal: An Intimate History of a Mysterious Cat