The caracal, with its hauntingly beautiful eyes and pointed charcoal fringed ears, is perhaps the most mysterious, elusive and rare of wild felines found in India, today confined to semi-desert areas like Ranthambore and Kutch. But it’s abundant in Africa and West Asia, to the extent it has been hunted as vermin in some places. This tawny, red-gold cat with its impressive leaping ability has always had a long and enduring relationship with us.

The Caracal (Rs 3850, Tiger Watch) is a magnificently illustrated tribute to this mysterious cat, covering in minute detail every aspect of its life, relying on the authors’ own experiences as well as the large numbers of researchers (most working out of Africa) — biologists, historians, forest officials, conservationists, villagers, et al — who have come under its spell or simply encountered it. Sadly, very little original research has emerged from India — where it has a precarious existence. But the amount of detailed information the authors have unearthed and presented is truly staggering, especially given the fact that they have sourced information from all of the caracal’s territories.

Authors Dharmendra Khandal and Ishan Dhar are associated with Tiger Watch, based out of Ranthambore — one of the caracal’s last strongholds — and are involved in research and community-based wildlife conservation. The book is sorted in three parts: Biology and Ecology, History, and Distribution in India. The first dissects the caracal bone by bone, hair by hair, body part by body part, all bolstered by photographs and line drawings. The language is scientific — which ought to be familiar to zoology students and academicians studying those subjects, but which may be a struggle for the layman. But if there is anything you want to know about the animal, and its habits: what and how it hunts, how it lives etc. the information is there for the taking.

The caracal has an ancient relationship with humanity stretching back to prehistoric times, both abroad and in India. The animal has been used (usually alongside the cheetah) for coursing by the nobility and royalty; for chasing and bringing down hares, birds (even the Great Indian Bustard), spotted deer, and blackbuck. It was also hunted for its pelt and because it was thought to be a pest in India and throughout its realm. In India, it now gets full protection under the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972, although there have been instances of poaching.

Always an enigma, the caracal appears in wall art, paintings, stories, mythology, religion and legends throughout its realm. The reproductions — whether of cave art, miniatures, sketches (with all due credits given) — are superb and have been given a generous amount of space in the book. The authors have even gone to the extent of displaying an ‘album’ of postage stamps, featuring the animal from countries as diverse as the Republic of Burundi, Israel, Kenya and, of course, India signifying its mesmerizing hold on people.

Festive offer

The authors have provided details of sightings from various parts of India, going back as far as records hold, with the help of maps. Its distribution in India is patchy — the animal is not easily seen — and your best chances would be in Ranthambore Tiger Reserve and in Kutch.

This book, with its stunning cover, needs to be in every library: the ordinary reader — unless obsessed by the animal — may find it a bit too scholarly and in-depth to tackle. But, at the same time, it could ignite a spark of interest in this elusive, relatively unknown, very beautiful wild cat — and who knows where that may lead to? After all, the siyagosh, which is one of its Persian monikers, may still have several secrets that it has yet to reveal to us. All you need to do is to look into its eyes.

Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and birdwatcher