The Mighty Coastal Cat

Small but mighty, the fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus) is a wetland-dependent feline that for the most part, still remains a mystery to researchers. Distributed discontinuously through south and southeast Asia, the fishing cat is considered “Vulnerable” and is declining rapidly throughout most its range. Larger than your average domestic cat, their long stocky body, short legs and tail, broad head and extremely dense water proof fur make them perfectly adapted for living in and around water based habitats.

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Contrary to belief, fishing cats do not have specially webbed claws for catching fish, in fact their feet are no more webbed than any of the other cats.
Image – Fishing cat at water’s edge

To find out more about what makes these small cats so remarkable Dr. Anthony J. Giordano, founder and director of S.P.E.C.I.E.S., is back to discuss his organization’s work with the fishing cat and explain why more emphasis needs to be put on this unique species that calls the wetlands of Asia home.

Why highlight the fishing cat?

I have always been personally interested in the ecology of the fishing cat for many of the same reasons as you or your readers are – simply put, there wasn’t a lot of information on them. To address this back in 2008 we began a fishing cat project in Bangladesh, right before they were listed as “Endangered” by the IUCN. This status change occurred mostly because fishing cats were not showing up in survey areas where many thought they should have been and, because there were few records or pictures – it was like an alarm bell going off for researchers. Since S.P.E.C.I.E.S. was already well positioned to lead fishing cat research efforts this change in status allowed us to make a stronger argument for funding the work.

Unfortunately it is frequently difficult to make an argument to protect a species and gather critical information about it unless it is threatened or endangered. This often leads to smaller samples due to the animal’s rarity and this often happens at the expense of being able to do good science. I do think these type of shortcomings underscore the need for greater financial investment, as there are only a handful of funding options out there to support work like this in conservation research. In particular, better funding is needed to support information-gathering on potentially declining species before they’re officially on the radar as a threatened species and, to support the proper development of an effective conservation strategy.

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“It’s now commonly understood that fishing cats are the only true wetland-dependent species of felid, and in this case by wetland I mean lakes and ponds, as well as mangroves and coastal estuaries…” – Anthony J. Giordano – Image female fishing cat

What are the projects S.P.E.C.I.E.S. has worked on?

A few years ago we finished a project in eastern Bangladesh where we conducted the first region wide surveys among an interesting region known as Sylhet. Bangladesh hosts the world’s largest Delta and Sylhet has some interesting geology which permits the formation of seasonal lakes or wetlands called haors (pronounced how-er), which can grow large after the region’s seasonal monsoons and then quickly dry up later in the year. We verified the presence of fishing cats at several haors and, in some places fishing cats were relatively common making it possible to observe them in the open where they seemed indifferent to our presence. In other areas where they occur, fishing cats were elusive and sometimes near impossible to find.

Another important aspect of our work was trying to understand how local people interacted with fishing cats. There is a major protected wetland sanctuary near one of the haors where local residents manage commercial tilapia ponds and their fish were frequently reported as being taken by fishing cats. In other areas fishing cats were killing people’s ducks, so overall most of these areas were experiencing some kind of conflict or coexistence issue with fishing cats.

We quickly learned there wasn’t a lot of regard for fishing cats in eastern Bangladesh. In fact, the local people also remarked that the cats had a very strong scent. I finally got wind of one at one point – imagine a musky, wet cat that also smells of sun-bleached fish! It is possible that their habitats, in and around urban areas of south Asia, could contribute to that smell or maybe it is a combination of that and their quick drying, insulating hairs which also help them to do well in the colder parts of their range.

After completing some pretty extensive surveys we concluded that fishing cats were broadly-distributed in that region. I even found fishing cat sign near a national park not very far north of Dhaka, the country’s capital and another overpopulated south Asian urban center, that is an extremely degraded secondary forest. This suggests a certain amount of adaptability by fishing cats in these regions.

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“Most tilapia from this region makes its way to the U.S. as frozen white fish, so people should be aware of where their tilapia comes from”. – Anthony J. Giordano – Image – Fishing cat catching fish

In the seasonal forests of Sri Lanka’s hill country S.P.E.C.I.E.S. has a multi-species carnivore project in full partnership with the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society. In contrast to Bangladesh, it took us over a year to verify the presence of fishing cats at this study site. This central north part of the country is seasonally dry and has no natural lakes instead, it has man-made reservoirs that date back to ancient kingdoms. Survey after survey we found leopard tracks and the occasional rusty-spotted cat track, the smallest of the world’s cats, but we found NO evidence of fishing cats. Even with camera-traps inside and outside the nearest protected area no photos of fishing cats even as photos of everything else poured in and yet, we were collecting convincing reports that fishing cats were killing people’s chickens.

The first physical evidence the project we had for fishing cats in the area came more than a year into the project when a friend of the project was driving home one day late at night and they saw some movement at the side of the road. They started filming with their cell phone camera and sure enough it was a fishing cat which proceeded to run across the road right in front of the car! However, more time would elapse before we got our first official photo of a fishing cat on a camera-trap. In these environments the seasonal contraction and expansion of water bodies drive a lot of the challenges in conducting surveys for fishing cats so it is incredibly interesting to see how populations adapt to these ecosystems. At the other end of the spectrum fishing cats frequent coastal habitats on the edge of the city of Colombo, another of the most densely populated cities in southeast Asia, and they are not particularly secretive there either. I don’t know another cat where regional populations can be so different in this regard.

Usually, one can get a feel for the ecology and behavior of species across its range and what you might expect from it, but with fishing cats each population is a bit unpredictable and so that only adds to the mystery.

As for the fishing cat in Java, the last time it was seen was in 1930 and it is believed to be extinct. An expedition in the 1990’s was able to record fishing cat sign in a handful of locations in western Java, but there is no conclusive evidence that they still exist there.  There are rumors and reports that still persist to this day and to know for sure I am hoping to launch an expedition that will retrace the steps of an earlier expedition. If it is still alive it would probably be the rarest cat in the world.

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IUCN Map of fishing cat range

Wetlands and the fishing cat go hand in hand

The evolution of the fishing cat was more or less to specialize in foraging among wetlands and coastal areas, and this is what makes them unique among modern cats. They are not shy about swimming completely submerged underwater when they want or need to, head and all. They are known to sit by the water’s edge and scoop out a fish or dash in after one as well as swim up underneath waterfowl resting on the water’s surface. One could argue that the fishing cat is a top predator in these Asian ecosystems which are not particularly suitable habitat for other larger carnivore species.

What is their connection to shrimp farming?

In many ways the conservation challenges that fishing cats are enduring make it the face of wetland conservation in south Asia. Whether through development, agriculture, or aquaculture, south and southeast Asia’s unique wetlands and mangroves are disappearing more rapidly that its rain forests if you can believe that? In southern Thailand for example, shrimp farming is displacing natural wetland habitat that would normally be suitable habitat for fishing cats, otters, numerous birds, reptiles, amphibians, and of course freshwater fish that would be found nowhere else.

Much of that shrimp is largely exported to western markets including the U.S., which unfortunately loves it cheap frozen shrimp. The average person should be aware of what they purchase and from where and maybe consult the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program as each choice we make can have an impact, whether negative or positive. A mindful consumer is the best weapon against wanton environmental degradation and I always say that if it costs a little more to compensate someone, or an industry for that matter, for doing the right thing, wouldn’t it be worth it?

What is so unique about the distribution of fishing cats? 

Today fishing cat distribution likely represents what the distribution of water bodies were like tens of thousands of years ago perhaps when that particular part of the earth was wetter and when lakes and rivers were more contiguous with one another. Since that time the distribution of these active watersheds changed which means the fishing cat’s range has also become fragmented with many populations becoming isolated from one another.

This is consistent with the idea that the habitat in between these populations does little to facilitate cat movement or dispersal. Tropical forests might be incredibly important overall for supporting biodiversity but a conservation strategy for fishing cats must include wetlands and mangroves in places like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Thailand and Nepal where we’ve just begun a brand new initiative focused on fishing cats. More importantly one cannot assume anything about a local population that hasn’t previously been studied as their ecology might be very different from that of the next closest population.

What would surprise people most about the fishing Cat?

They are tough and scrappy! Wild individuals don’t particularly care for people and have a generally bad attitude particularly large males, the females weigh about 15-18 lbs and are generally only about half the size of the males. They actually might be even tougher than a bobcat! One account that interested me from around the turn of the 20th century was of a male fishing cat, caught during a collecting expedition in India, that had managed to kill a female leopard through a cage placed near its own. Not a cat you want to mess with!

 

With expanding human settlement in south and southeast Asia is the fishing cat on the decline due to habitat loss?

Overall, yes it most certainly is. The global trend is downward. However, local populations differ in their adaptability and for some, some degree of human development might be something they can adapt well to. Whereas others might be negatively impacted rather quickly. As I said Colombo has a fishing cat population on its coast, but who is to say that this coastal region might not be further eroded, developed or paved over in the near future assuming that process hasn’t already begun? No fishing cat population, no matter how adaptable, can survive that.

With the expanding human population comes greater settlement in more remote areas and more roads which means more fishing cats are getting killed on roads, something we’re starting to see in Sri Lanka, India and other areas. In addition to this there is the previously mentioned more general but widespread rapid pace of wetland and coastal development. Although our organization consistently communicates the importance of protecting tropical forests, particularly in Asia, we are trying our best to tell the stories of wetlands and mangroves considering they are the lungs of the ocean and the nurseries that supply the ocean’s creatures and us with food. They are critical to how a lot of ocean life begins so it’s no surprise that fishing cats have also come to depend on them. Therefore when we protect those fragile ecosystems, we are also protecting fishing cat populations.

Do you see poaching as a major threat to the species?

Hunting and trapping is an issue more in the context of ongoing conflict over the killing of poultry, the taking of fish, etc… than for commercial purposes. I see these problems as two different things – one is about solving a problem that has nothing to do with the cat’s value, and so doesn’t warrant necessarily the killing of the cat, the other is about valuing a dead animal for its parts. Perhaps the smell from the musk and oils plays a role in discouraging commercial trade or maybe the skins are not as gaudy as those of other Asian felids. I have seen skins locally yes, but likely the result of local conflict and opportunistic killings. This doesn’t mean that there is no commercial poaching occurring, rather it means that currently our understanding is that among the many threats fishing cats face it is likely not in the top three which are: wetland/coastal development and degradation, persecution from conflict and roadkill.

What would be the best ways to get local communities involved in saving the fishing cat?

It is all going to depend on what the local issues or threats are – they vary considerably so custom strategies might be warranted for each region. Most local people in most areas I’d argue currently don’t see the value in protecting fishing cats like they might inherently see for other species. In Bangladesh for example tigers inspire awe in many people, and are the national animal, this despite the fact they’ve been eradicated from much of the country. In contrast, fishing cats are considered nothing but pests. If people better understood how important their local population was or learned about how the rest of the world valued fishing cats, many might be at least open to non-lethal strategies for co-existing with fishing cats. In some parts of Bangladesh fishing cats are persecuted directly, whereas in other areas local communities have cited their Islamic faith as a reason they won’t or shouldn’t kill fishing cats. This is similar to some Sri Lankan communities, which cite their Buddhist philosophy for non-lethal practices. I would say that across their range local people don’t necessarily have to be excited about fishing cats, but maybe they would be more proactive about reducing conflict or avoiding lethal retribution and just let fishing cats be. This would be a very positive change for some local fishing cat populations, one we are leading the fight to make to happen.

Do you see zoos playing a role in helping the species?

I think most modern zoos are extremely committed to animal health and well-being, and are doing more and more for the conservation of wild populations. S.P.E.C.I.E.S. owes a tremendous amount of gratitude to zoos that have supported us financially to so that we are able to do conservation in the wild. We’ve even gotten some support for our fishing cat work from zoos. For example, support from the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo was critical to helping us launch the Bangladesh Fishing Cat Project years ago while most recently, we are indebted to the Phoenix Zoo for their support of our latest fishing cat initiative in Nepal.  In addition to zoos supporting conservation some zoos are where the wonder happens and it is sometimes the very first place for us that it does. How many of today’s conservation professionals, ecologists, naturalists owe their passion and inspiration to early experiences they had or observations they made at zoos? Would I really care about protecting fishing cats today, for example, if I’d only seen a video about them via my smart phone? Zoos invoke more than a “click to care” response, their presence helps lead to the next generation of professionals that work hard to protect the world’s endangered species.

What are your final thoughts on fishing cat conservation?

One of the things about protecting small cats is the potential to communicate their stories to the public. There is a certain familiarity or connection one can make to their own small cat sitting on their couch, purring on their lap, or hiding under the bed. Like the fishing cat, many of the world’s small cats have their own interesting tales to tell and I think there has largely been a missed opportunity to connect more people with their stories.

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“Even today we’re still trying to map their basic distribution and understand their ecology so they remain an enigma like few other cat’s” – Anthony J. Giordano – Image – Kelinahandbasket (Fishing Cat) Wikimedia commons

The fishing cat’s story lies in its dependence of fragile wetland and coastal ecosystems and no other cat’s story is so tied to these places. There is at once a lot that is unknown about the fishing cat, but a lot that is familiar. It’s that juxtaposition, and the fact they are such bad ass cats, that make them so intriguing. Hopefully this, along with the support of people locally and elsewhere, will keep us leading the charge to protect fishing cats!

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