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The cat that is the soul of the wetlands

Little is known of the fishing cat, an ‘umbrella species’ for wetlands, but conservationists are now trying to raise awareness—and count their numbers

Nature has cherry-picked traits to help fishing cats rule the wetlands
Nature has cherry-picked traits to help fishing cats rule the wetlands (Srikanth Mannepuri)

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Tiasa Adhya will never forget the time she looked into the beautiful slate-grey eyes of a female fishing cat at the Bhitarkanika National Park in Odisha. The cat was waiting by the creek’s edge as the high tide came in, remembers Adhya, co-founder of The Fishing Cat Project, a research and conservation enterprise founded in 2010. The waves pushed Adhya’s boat closer to the fishing cat, which continued to gaze at them steadily. “Soon, we came so close to her that I could not focus my binoculars any more,” says the Kolkata-based conservationist, who recently won the Netherlands-based Future For Nature Foundation award for her work on fishing cats. “Her picture of nobility will remain etched in my mind forever,” says Adhya, who visited the national park earlier this year.

Adhya is one of a handful of people in India working to protect the fishing cat, one of the many smaller cats found in Asia and South-East Asia, and among the few that live in wetlands. Unlike bigger, more charismatic and more visible cats such as lions, tigers and snow leopards, very little is known about these elusive animals, currently listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List and as an endangered species under Schedule I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.

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“In this country, priority is usually given to the larger species, not just because they are charismatic but also because they come into far more conflict with human beings,” says Bilal Habib, a conservationist biologist with the Wildlife Institute of India. “We now know a lot about the larger species; the time has come to put resources for smaller species,” adds Habib, who is leading India’s first fishing cat collaring project in the Coringa Wildlife Sanctuary in Andhra Pradesh. The three-year project, which will focus on collaring 10 cats to understand the species better, began last year. The initial recce over, they will start collaring soon, says Habib.

This project is the latest in a series of small but significant attempts to understand and conserve a species with no global or even nationwide records of population. Most biologists have a limited understanding of its distribution and habitat, though it is among the few cats that thrives in swamps and is an indicator of the health of wetlands. “Fishing cat distribution remains unclarified, and whether they still occur in places where they were present historically also remains unknown,” says Adhya, who believes basic mapping of their current distribution is imperative. After all, it is impossible to estimate how any animal is doing without a sense of the baseline numbers.

So, what do we actually know so far about these cats? What are the major threats they face? And how can we ensure we don’t lose a species we haven’t even documented yet?

The soul of the wetlands

The fishing cat, Prionailurus viverrinus, is a medium-sized cat weighing, on average, 6-15kg; it’s one of the 15 species of the cat family, Felidae, found in India. Most of them are found in low-elevation regions, along the major river basins of South and South-East Asia, including the Indus in Pakistan, the Ganga-Brahmaputra, Mahanadi, Godavari and Krishna in India and the Irrawaddy, which primarily stretches across Myanmar, with a tiny portion in India and China.

Tiasa Adhya
Tiasa Adhya

Like all other cats, they are hyper-carnivores—animals that get over 70% of their nutrition from meat—making them excellent predators. Unlike most other cats, however, they are not terrestrial hunters, skulking through grasslands and forests—or in the case of a domestic cat, your backyard. The fishing cat, as the name suggests, preys on fish and is perfectly adapted to hunt in water. Only two of the 40-odd extant species of cats globally have evolved to thrive and colonise the muddy, watery terrain of the wetlands—the other one is the flat-headed cat, endemic to South-East Asia.

“Nature has cherry-picked traits to help them (fishing cats) rule the wetlands,” says Adhya. They have, for instance, a double-layered coat to keep the skin underneath dry when they dive into the water; close-set eyes to help them focus on prey in water; small ears whose inner folds keep out water; and a short stubby tail that functions as a rudder while swimming. These olive-grey cats, with striped heads and shoulders and spotted torsos—like tigers and cheetahs, the marking patterns are unique to each—also have crude webbing between their feet and semi-retractable back claws, which help anchor them to muddy banks while grabbing fish. They are known to have eclectic diets, preying on molluscs, snakes, rodents and crabs if their supply or access to fish is cut off, Adhya adds.

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Very little else is known of their habitat, distribution and behaviour. Like most other cats, they are usually described as nocturnal or crepuscular, active during the night or the twilight period, but daytime sightings have been reported too. “I have seen them in broad daylight,” says Giridhar Malla, founder of the Godavari Fishing Cat Project, started in 2014. Malla believes human presence could be pushing them into being nocturnal—but “we don’t know enough”. Similarly, though it’s primarily a wetland and swamp dweller, there have been sightings in urban and mountainous areas too.

Photographer, conservationist and film-maker Srikanth Mannepuri
Photographer, conservationist and film-maker Srikanth Mannepuri

Photographer, conservationist and film-maker Srikanth Mannepuri, who has spent years documenting and tracking fishing cats, is inclined to believe that their behaviour is highly dependent on habitat. Their hunting behaviour in the mangrove habitat, for example, depends on sea-level changes. During high tide, when water filled with fish enters the forest, they hunt inside it; when the water recedes, they come out to the banks to find fish. “Outside the mangrove forests, you see fishing cats even in villages, foraging for fish in stagnant water,” he adds.

Unfortunately, no nationwide numbers exist, though counting is being attempted at the Bhitarkanika park. A 2018-19 census in the Coringa sanctuary, one of the largest mangrove forests in India, estimated that there were around 115 fishing cats in the Godavari delta. Anant Shankar, the then divisional forest officer (wildlife) of Rajahmahendravaram (Rajahmundry), who spearheaded the survey, says it was part of a larger effort to protect these wetlands—like all wetlands, these play a vital role in flood mitigation, hydrological cycle regulation and reduce carbon emissions, among other things.

“We wanted to educate people to have more sensitivity towards this ecosystem,” says Shankar, currently the district forest officer of Visakhapatnam. Their effort included choosing a charismatic animal to represent the mangrove habitat. “We made the fishing cat the mascot of the Coringa Wildlife Sanctuary,” he says. They named it “macha”, Tamil for brother-in-law, but also an affectionate and colloquial way of referring to a good friend.

Despite the paucity of information about fishing cats, one thing is obvious: Their fate is linked inextricably to the well-being of the biologically diverse wetland habitats they inhabit. Shankar refers to them as an “umbrella species”—protecting them leads to the indirect protection of other species in the same ecosystem. “If the fishing cats are safe, the fish are safe, the mangroves are safe,” he says.

Habib agrees, “If fishing cats are doing well, aquatic ecosystems are doing well.” This also offers clues to understanding the health of the forests that house these aquatic ecosystems. “In that sense, it ultimately represents the forest’s soul.”

Human-cat conflict

During the day, the bheris (man-made fish ponds) of Paddapukur village, which lies close to the India-Bangladesh border in West Bengal, bustle with people extracting fish from the long nets they spread across these shallow ponds. At night, the bheris lie empty and calm, save for the carp and tilapia living in their turbid, shallow waters. In a November 2020 video released by RoundGlass Sustain, an organisation that seeks to raise awareness about India’s biodiversity, one can see a creature that seems to be waiting for this stillness: West Bengal’s state animal, the fishing cat, also called baghrol in the state.

It lurks at the edges of a bheri, presumably for hours, before wading in. It looks like a larger version of a grey, striped tabby in the dim light, save for its comfort with submerged paws, unusual for cats, which are known to abhor water. It dives in headfirst and emerges in seconds, fish in mouth, before striding to the pond’s banks to enjoy its meal. “I have seen a fishing cat spend six-seven hours on a mudflat waiting to catch a fish,” recalls Malla, adding that the cat’s penchant for fish has sometimes led to man-animal conflict. “Fishermen sometimes complain that they take their fish and tear their nets,” he says.

Fishing cats are very comfortable in water
Fishing cats are very comfortable in water (Srikanth Mannepuri)

Habitat destruction and unplanned development continue to be the greatest threat to the species—more than 50% of the mangroves in the Indus, Irrawaddy and Mekong deltas have been lost to dams and aquaculture, while over 90% of the wetland grasslands of the Indian Terai have been converted to agricultural use.

Encounters with human beings have, not surprisingly, turned deadly. According to a 28 January report in Hindustan Times, three female fishing cats were poisoned to death in Bagnan in West Bengal’s Howrah district earlier that month. CATnews, a biannual newsletter of the IUCN-SSC Cat Specialist Group, noted that at least 11 such killings had occurred between January 2019 and February 2021 in West Bengal. “Fishing cats are often mistaken as leopards or tiger cubs, leading to fear and killing,” says Adhya, adding that fish cultivators also sometimes kill them because the cats take fish from their ponds.

As with any man-animal conflict, which almost always affects the poorest and marginalised most, the solution lies in education and awareness. Several programmes, driven by governments as well as NGOs, are attempting to achieve exactly this. “The most important aspect of our work revolves around creating trained local resources and advocates at the grass-roots level,” says Adhya. The Fishing Cat Project, for instance, has started a conservation education programme with the West Bengal Zoo Authority and Howrah forest division, partnering with NGOs like the Human and Environment Alliance League (HEAL) and education institutes such as the Shyampur Siddheswari Mahavidyalaya. “We invite local residents who experience negative interactions with fishing cats to a mini-zoo in the Howrah district where fishing cats are kept in a recreated habitat,” says Adhya. The programme, which consists of interaction sessions, drama, and direct observation of the animals, seeks to replace fear of the species with a fascination for it.

They have also implemented a Know Thy Neighbours programme in Chilika, Odisha, where they train locals to identify, name and monitor the animals, a way to both collect valuable data and help dispel fear. In a similar vein, the Godavari Fishing Cat Project runs a Children for Fishing Cat project to raise awareness among youngsters. “These children go home and talk about this with their parents,” says Malla. He believes this approach has already had an impact in the Godavari region but adds that “we need to have a stricter wetland policy to ensure a safe habitat for the fishing cat”.

Human alterations to the ecosystem, which force more cats to squeeze into a smaller area, could also lead to inbreeding and fiercer competition for resources. “Entire populations can get wiped out this way,” says Malla. Adhya agrees, pointing out that wetlands are among the most threatened ecosystems on the planet, especially in Asia, since they are exploited for intensive agriculture, fish and prawn farming, and urbanisation.

A picture of nobility 
A picture of nobility  (Partha Dey)

“The fishing cat suffers from not only huge levels of habitat loss but also loss of their primary prey, the fish. We can only imagine what is happening to their numbers,” says Adhya. “This extremely resilient species is hanging on the edge but trying to fight it out.

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