Few countries can boast of as many large felid species as India. The diversity of terrain and vegetation in South Asia has enabled it to host as many as five – the Asiatic Lion (Panthera leo persica), the Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris tigris), the Indian Leopard (Panthera pardus fusca), the Snow Leopard (Uncia uncia unicioides) and the Clouded Leopard (Neofelis nebulosa macrosceloides). All are large sized predators of the cat family but only four – the lion, the tiger, the leopard and snow leopard are counted as big cats. They are members of the genus Panthera, one of the earliest to diverge from the rest of the felid family.
India should also be thankful to the process of evolution within the Felidae. There are two major subfamilies among the cats – the Pantherinae and the Felinae. The Pantherinae contain two genera, the Panthera (which have been described above) and the Neofelis (made up of the two clouded leopard species – Neofelis nebulosa and Neofelis diardi). Scientists believe that the Pantherinae separated (and diversified) from the other cat lineage – the Felinae, around six to ten million years ago, in Asia. This describes the species richness of South Asia. The Felinae have many more species but none to match the impressive size achieved by the Pantherinae. The sole exception is the Puma (Puma concolor) of the Americas.
Surprisingly, the Puma is believed to be very closely related to another ‘big small cat’, the Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus). Together (and along with the South American Jaguarundi – Puma yagouaroundi), they make up the tribe Acinonychini. Despite their size, they are closer to small house cats than leopards or lions. Pumas are still known as mountain lions (on account of their habitat) while Cheetahs were spoken of as hunting leopards in British India (due to their role in the life of South Asian royalty). To the big and small princes of the Raj, domesticated cheetahs were the source of much pride and entertainment, an aspect of life which has been preserved in numerous paintings and photographs.
The Cheetah was found across half of southern Asia, from the scorching deserts of Arabia in the west, to the steppes of Turkestan in the east and the scrub jungle of Deccan in the south. A hunter of open plains and fleet game, it flourished in the arid regions of South Asia, subsisting on Chinkara (Gazella bennettii) and Blackbuck (Antilope cervicapra), two species of antelope. A large numbers of cubs were captured from the wild to sustain the princely demand for ‘hunting leopards’. The Mughal Emperor Akbar is said to have as many as a thousand to assist him during hunts. Unfortunately, the tremendous pressure exerted by these royal pastimes, along with the destruction of its habitat and prey, drove the beautiful cat to extinction in South Asia. Today the last hundred or so survive in the wastes of Dasht-e-Kavir, in Iran.
Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons shows a Mughal painting preserved in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (UK). An illustration of the Akbarnama (commissioned by Akbar as the official chronicle of his reign), it was painted by the court artists Lal and Kesav Khord between 1586 to 1589, and depicts the Emperor hunting Blackbuck using his trained Cheetahs.