In February this year, a video clip of a wildcat species surrounded by dogs in Ladakh went viral on social media. Many news outlets carried this clip in their ‘viral video’ sections. In the comments on this video, people were curious to know about this wild animal. Some guesses were way off the mark with those saying it is a hybrid of a domestic dog and wolf. But there were some who accurately identified it as the Eurasian lynx.
Eurasian lynx or lynx is a carnivorous cat species found in barren, relatively open, rocky mountainous plateau of Central Asia. In India, the lynx sub-species is found in some parts of Ladakh and the sightings of the cat have been very rare as it is sparsely distributed all over its range. Because of this, the cat is not well known, despite it being the second largest feline species in Ladakh, after the snow leopard.
According to Ladakh’s wildlife department, the lynx in the video was rescued and later released in the wild. “That lynx was a little injured. So, we immediately rescued it and after a rehabilitation of 10-15 days we released it in its habitat successfully,” the Chief Wildlife Warden of Ladakh, Pankaj Raina said.
Photo by Manish Chandra Mishra. Courtesy Mongabay.
The Eurasian lynx inhabits the barren and rocky mountainous plateau of Centra Asia. In India, the Eurasian lynx is found in some parts of Ladakh.
A medium-size cat
There are six subspecies of Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) found in Europe and North-central Asia. The subspecies found in India is known as the central Asian lynx (Lynx lynx isabellinus). It is also known as Turkestan lynx, Tibetan lynx or Himalayan lynx.
The Eurasian lynx is the largest species of the genus lynx and is listed as Least Concern in the IUCN Red List. The species is listed under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act which means it has the highest level of protection.
In Ladakh there are three major felids – snow leopard, being the largest cat, is the apex predator, the Eurasian lynx subspecies which is a medium size wildcat and Pallas’s cat which is a small wildcat. The Eurasian lynx found in Ladakh has long legs and big paws. Its tail is very short and the ears have a black back with long black hair tufts. The fur is yellowish with a faint and almost unmarked coat.
While other subspecies of Eurasian lynx are mostly found in forested areas, the central Asian lynx or Himalayan lynx inhabits a barren environment.
Lynx usually prey on Tibetan wooly hare, marmots, and Royle’s pika, female or juvenile ungulates, domestic sheep and goats. Their role in the food chain involves regulating the populations of these prey species.
Talking about the significance of the lynx in the food chain, Niazul H. Khan, a research scholar with Wildlife Institute of India (WII), explained, “Their role in the food chain involves regulating the populations of these prey species. By preying on these herbivores, lynxes help control their numbers, preventing overgrazing and habitat degradation. When lynx populations are healthy in the landscape, they can reduce the number of herbivores like hares and marmots which, in turn, can positively affect plant communities and the overall landscape.”
Finding the elusive lynx
The Eurasian lynx subspecies, locally known as Eeh or Ee in Ladakhi, is found in different parts of Ladakh such as the Changthang Wildlife Sanctuary, Tso-Kar basin, Hemis National Park and Nubra Valley, which are major habitats of the cat.
When it comes to scientific records of lynx, there are very few in India. One of the early ones is by an expert on snow leopards and tigers, Raghu Chundawat, who recorded two lynx carcasses way back in the 1980s. Out of these two, one had died of natural causes and the other one was a retaliatory kill by locals to protect livestock. G.S. Rawat a professor at WII had spotted a lynx in Ladakh’s Tso-Kar Basin in 2002.
Researchers Trishna Dutta and Sandeep Sharma in 2004 observed lynxes in Hemis National Park. “We had a good sighting of two adult and one sub adult lynx together, near Ganda-la base which is at an elevation of 4900 meters, in Hemis National Park, Ladakh, during our fieldwork on snow leopards in February 2004,” Dutta and Sharma wrote in their article.
“The two adult lynx were moving closer and following each other, while the sub-adult lynx was a little far from the adults. We could follow them with our spotting scope for about one hour. Initially they were moving along the ridgeline of the mountain then they came down on the southern slope of (the) mountain, which was interspersed with Caragana bushes,” they wrote describing their encounter.
In 2010, Amit Kotia, an assistant professor at the University of Rajasthan, encountered a lynx in Changthang’s Chushul village. “The habitat around the sighting location was typically xeric and dominated by Caragana, Eurotia, Artemisia, Tanacetum, Stipa, Oxytropis, Draba and Alyssum species,” Kotia described the location in an article.
Apart from Ladakh, the cat was also spotted in Kashmir. In 2019, forest officials clicked a picture of a lynx in the Dobaj forest area of South Kashmir’s Shopian district.
In the Kargil division of Ladakh, there were only informal reports on the presence of lynx. However, in October 2020 a team from the Wildlife Protection Division, Kargil, led by WII researcher Khan successfully captured the first photographic evidence of Eurasian lynx in Rangdum valley of Kargil.
“This remarkable record of such a rare and elusive species carries profound implications for the conservation and effective management of lynx populations in the Kargil division of Ladakh,” said Wildlife Warden, Kargil, Raza Ali Abidi.
A Eurasian lynx in its habitat in Rangdum valley of Kargil. Photo by Niazul/Wildlife Protection Division Kargil.
Need for more study and data
There is an urgent need for a detailed study of this elusive cat’s ecology for its effective conservation in the trans-Himalayan region of India.
While data on the species is limited, researchers speculate that the population of Eurasian lynx in India has gone down over a period of time. Conducting a population survey is also difficult in comparison to other cat species.
“When I did the survey in the 1980s, there were good signs of lynx. We found so many carcasses and snares. But when I went to Nubra valley last year, there were not many signs this time around,” Chundawat said.
“One difficulty in estimating the number of lynx is that its scat is difficult to find. It buries its scat like domestic cats, so it’s very difficult to look for it,” he added.
While talking about the data and information available with the wildlife department of Ladakh about Eurasian lynx, Raina said, “We have camera trap locations right now, with which we can draw a preliminary distribution map. We also have telemetry data so we can know about home range and activity patterns like when it gets active, what it eats, what it does not eat, after hunting how long it spends in that area.”
Talking about the sightings by trackers, tourists and wildlife enthusiasts, chairman of Wildlife Conservation and Birds Club of Ladakh, Lobzang Visuddha, told Mongabay-India, “Eurasian lynx is one of the rare species, especially for India. It is found in Ladakh and there is no study, there is no data. We don’t even have its estimated population as of now. Most of the sightings so far are in Nubra valley and in Rumbak in Hemis National Park. In Nubra, the concentration is higher. We don’t know about its population, but locally people don’t know much about it.”