Sri Lanka’s ‘Hummingbird of the cat family’ | Sunday Observer

Sri Lanka’s ‘Hummingbird of the cat family’

3 July, 2022

Few in Sri Lanka know of the Rusty-spotted cat (Prionailurusrubiginosus), given its small stature and nocturnal habits – According to Chandika Jayaratne, wildlife enthusiast and biologist who I interviewed, the rusty “may be small in stature, but is definitely not small in heart and courage.” He said that they share the same habitats with their larger cousins, leopards, jungle cats and fishing cats and in a wild setting, they roam around as if there is no danger. It is nicknamed ‘The hummingbird of the cat family’ thanks to its characteristic gentle purr that is very endearing to listen to.

The rusty is a contender for the title of ‘smallest feline in the world’, along with the black-footed cat from Africa. At 1-1.5 kg in weight, it is half the size of a domestic cat and known as thurumpanpunai in Tamil and kola divya in Sinhala. Their eyes are a yellow-chrome, with a rust-tinted pattern on the back, black spots and a pure white chest. The rusty excels at climbing trees, spending the day sleeping in places such as hollow logs or crevices. 

It comes out at night and feeds on whatever it can catch - rodents, lizards, birds, frogs, snakes and bugs. They hunt these prey in short bursts of speed followed by swift kills. Occasionally, they do venture close to human habitation to catch rats. They can be found only in South Asia - in India, Sri Lanka and Nepal.

“I have on many occasions come across large leopard pugmarks (footprints) and also very tiny ones [belonging to rusty spotted cats] going along the same paths. Also, when I studied them at the zoo, I expected them to hide in their enclosure when I set up cameras, but instead they stood their ground.”

They haunt forests, plantations, grasslands and hilly areas. They are also seldom seen in zoos, although some of Sri Lankan stock have ended up in Europe. Their closest relative is the flat-headed cat which is found in Malaysia and Indonesia – another critter of the night. For a long time, we thought that rusties were only found in India and Sri Lanka, but in 2016, evidence was found that they also inhabit Nepal. According to Nepalese conservationist Rabin Karadiya, in the Bardiya National Park some “very fortunate” tourists once saw it despite the very low odds and in the Shuklaphanda National Park, they were seen by camera traps meant for tigers.

It is known as khiyalebiralo in Nepali. Karadiya also said that the rusty-spotted cat is “harder to see than the jungle cat”, another cat found in Sri Lanka.  The Lankan subspecies is probably unique due to years of isolation and DNA analyses might prove that in the future. The fact that they were only recently spotted in Nepal attests to their elusive ways.

Your highest chance of seeing them in Sri Lanka is at Jetwing Vil Uyana, close to Sigiriya. This spot is best known as a hub for watching nocturnal small critters like fishing cats, lorises and otters.