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Sunderbans mystery cat one of its kind

The Times of India
27 Mar 2012

The Sunderbans has revealed at least one of its mysteries. In the depths of its mangroves, lives a one-of-its-kind feline - the melanistic leopard-cat - captured in camera traps outside the core area. Now the excitement is over how many such cats are in Sunderbans , and if it is a new species.

There are just two pictures of the cat - the first ever sighting in history. It`s a rare occasion for wildlife scientists to consider the discovery of a new mammalian species. TOI was the first to report the eureka moment. Bengal forest officials had sent pictures of the cat to the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) three days ago and got a reply on Monday morning. "According to them, it`s a leopard-cat melanistic. In my knowledge , such a species has never been sighted anywhere in the state before," said Sunderbans Biosphere Reserve (SBR) director Pradeep Vyas.

WII senior scientist Y V Jhala took it a step further: "Such a cat has never been photo-captured anywhere in the world. Identifying a species from camera trap images is very difficult but after consulting other scientists here we have decided to go with `leopard cat melanistic` . We have laid camera traps inside the core area of Sunderbans, too, which will help us know if the species is common in this part of the world."

Peter Jackson, a senior member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature cat specialist group, had earlier failed to identify the species. "Only then, the forest department decided to send the photographs to WII," said WWF-India`s Sunderbans chapter head Anurag Danda.

The cat spotted in the camera traps in Raidighi is bigger than a wild cat and smaller than a leopard, say sources. "We have never seen any animal like this in the Sunderbans. Apart from the 18 tigers, scores of other cats, including jungle and fishing cats, were found during the camera exercise , which was done outside the reserve area for the first time. Most of them were expected till we came upon two sightings of a black cat with a long tail on February 26," added Vyas.

WII scientists said the identification process was not easy. "The tail was crucial. We thought it was a fishing cat melanistic or a marbled cat. However, after discussions with other carnivore experts we decided to identify it as a black leopard cat," said WII senior scientist V B Mathur.

A fishing cat`s tail can be a third of its body length, whereas the tail of a leopard cat can be half the length of its body.