Dr. Junaid Ahmad Malik
Till recently, all the primitive carnivores and numerous other species which are extinct were grouped together as ‘creodonts’, and it was believed that the present day carnivores have evolved from this group. However, in the light of recent investigations it is now clear that this is not true, and that there are adequate evidences to show that the true carnivores evolved as an independent line within the creodonts. Primitive ungulates and hyenodonts have now been separated from creodonts. Carnivores developed on parallel lines with the hyenodonts. Members related to the present day carnivores have been found in the upper Eocene and lower Oligocene deposits and as well as in the lower tertiary animals which have evolved from the creodonts as ‘proto carnivores’. These animals possessed carnassial teeth which are characteristic of true carnivores apart from other typical features, viz., the skull structure, dentition, limb shape. These animals (known as Miacids) have been placed under the super family Miacoidea. They were weasel sized to wolf sized carnivores with primitive 5 toed limbs. Miacids are now considered as the early terrestrial carnivores, which are presently divided into 3 supe rfamilies; 1) Arctoidea, which includes families of mustelids, racoons, pandas and bears; 2) Herpestoidea, which includes the families of Viverrids, aardwolves and hyenas; 3) Cynofeloidea; which includes canid and felid families.
The felid family is divided on the basis of behaviour and structure of the hyoid bone apparatus into the generic groups of smaller cats (Felini: the geographically older cats) and the big cats (Pantherini: which evolved from the smaller cats). Evidence of the first smaller cats is seen in the deposits from the earliest part of the Pleistocene. The clouded leopard and the puma are large sized small cats, the former especially is believed to be close to the ancestral group of the big cats.
The phylogenetic relationship amongst the smaller cats is unclear. Lynx and puma appeared as separate distinct groups in the upper Pliocene. Evidences show the distribution of puma species in America during the Ice age. Apart from this, the evolutionary history of the new world cats is not clear. The wild cats first appeared in the earliest part of the Pleistocene and are distributed at present in Eurasia and North Africa. The ancestors of small American cats initially reached South America during ice age. The big cats evolved into the present day species during the ice age. The tiger has distinct traits and at times is grouped as a separate subgenus. Snow leopard is the most primitive big cat and the cave lion, depicted on cave drawings by the ice age men, appears to be the sub species of the modern lion.
Pelts of wild felids are among the most sought after in the International fur trade, which has steadily grown since the late last century. The adversity got compounded by the susceptibility of cats to surreptitious trapping and poisoning by the clandestine pelt seekers. Among the Indian felids, the most in demand are the skins of snow leopard, leopard, tiger, clouded leopard, leopard cat, caracal, desert cat, fishing cat and jungle cat.
Almost all commercial demand being international, resort was taken to stringent export controls with stricter field encroachment. Ban on export of tiger and leopard skins came in force in 1970. After ratifying the CITES in 1976, such trade controls became even more rigid. In 1979, a complete ban on export of all wild pelts was enforced. However, in the light of stocks of such skins held by traders, a relaxation was given for export of coats and jackets made out of declared skins of jungle cat and desert cat only. An idea of the depleting pressures upon wild populations can be held from the number of skins declared by the traders: Jungle cat- 3,06,343 and Desert cat- 41,845.
CAT CNSERVATION STRATEGY AND ACTION PLAN
As terminal consumers in the main food chain, cats have special ecological position in all the biomes where they are found. Any conservation action for the cats must ensure the productivity of their natural food in the form of wild herbivores, and in order to sustain the latter, one must care for the plants. Looking after the soil, the water regime and the micro-organisms then becomes a concomitant feature. The entire natural diversity of flora and fauna thus gets covered under such a cat conservation programme. This phenomenon has been strongly experienced and vindicated in the implementation of ‘Project Tiger’. Although ‘Project Tiger’ was styled as a special programme for saving the endangered tiger, it was clear at the conceptual stage itself that this had to have multilateral thrust addressed to the totality of wilderness.
The Task Force of the Indian Board of Wildlife, which prepared the project proposal, gave it an eco-system approach. This led to the ‘core buffer strategy’ in constituting the tiger reserves, which were selected to represent as many different eco-system as possible in the various parts of the country. As the project grew, the number of reserves increased from 9 covering an area of 14,162 sq. km. to 18 in 1989-90, now covering 28017 sq. km., the later selections having also been guided by the need to encompass more ecosystem types and filling up geographical gaps. In the core buffer strategy, the central idea was to free the core areas completely from all forms of exploitative human use and then to protect them from external influences by giving effective buffer belts all around.
—The author, a Lecturer Zoology, Government Degree College, Bijbehara, Anantnag, can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org