Mongabay-India

To save the vulnerable fishing cat, protect its threatened wetland habitat

Fishing cats are uniquely adapted to life in wetland habits. These cats are known to exist in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan and Thailand. The species may already be extinct in Vietnam and Indonesia. Image by Cloudtail the Snow Leopard/Flickr.

  • Fishing cats are uniquely adapted to life in wetlands, possessing a double-layered coat that serves as a water barrier and insulation, partially webbed feet, ears that plug when submerged, and a curious call reminiscent of a duck.
  • Spread across Asia, this small wild cat species faces myriad threats, including habitat loss, hunting and retaliatory killings, road kill, and more.
  • Conservationists are working across its range to raise the profile of this wildcat, reduce threats and understand the species. Linking its protection to equally threatened wetlands is vital, they say.

The fishing cat is not your regular feline: it loves the mud and water of wetland habitats, unlike others. The mysterious species roams the wetlands of South and Southeast Asia, where it has uniquely adapted — so much so that its call resembles the quack of a duck.

Little known and under-researched, it faces an uphill battle against multiple threats, including loss of its wetland habitat to humanity’s incursions, and escalating climate change, as extreme drought and rising coastal waters disrupt aquatic ecosystems. Though in peril, the fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus) has many champions fighting for its survival. Numerous projects dedicated to protecting the species have sprung up across the cat’s range countries, from India to Pakistan and Bangladesh, Cambodia to Thailand. Each year, conservationists celebrate Fishing Cat February, shining a light on this once-neglected felid.

Tiasa Adhya, co-founder of the Fishing Cat Project in India, a conservation and research program dedicated to the species, began her journey to researching P. viverrinus on a tiger survey in the West Bengal’s Sundarbans in 2010. “There was this miniature pugmark — [a footprint] like that of a small tiger — that the forest department ranger pointed me to,” she recounts. “They said it belonged to the fishing cat. It was the state animal of West Bengal. But I had no idea what a fishing cat was, and that was true for most people [living] in my state.”

Adhya went on to co-found the Fishing Cat Project that same year. Over time, the group’s awareness-raising efforts, community outreach, and government lobbying boosted the fishing cat’s visibility, she says.

A fishing cat caught on camera wandering through a shrimp farm in Thailand, where wildcats can run into conflict with local communities.
A fishing cat caught on camera wandering through a shrimp farm in Thailand, where wildcats can run into conflict with local communities. Image courtesy of Sebastian Kennerknecht/Panthera.

A well-adapted and adaptable cat

Alongside Asia’s flat-headed cat (Prionailurus planiceps), the fishing cat is specifically adapted to living and hunting in semiaquatic habitats: in marshes, along rivers and oxbow lakes, in reeds and mangroves. The young start playing in water within two months of birth.

The mostly nocturnal fishing cat, about twice the size of a domestic cat, boasts a glossy yellowish-gray double-layered coat, which offers a water barrier and insulation when it plunges to catch fish; its paws are slightly webbed, while its ears close shut when its nose is submerged in shallow water.

“That’s a marvelous adaptation! That tells us how nature has cherry-picked these traits for the fishing cat’s survival as a wetland species,” says Adhya. Despite its name, this mostly nocturnal felid eats far more than fish; it dines on a varied diet of rodents, birds, snakes, frogs, crustaceans and mollusks.

Thanks to researchers and conservationists, often working with shoestring budgets, comparatively more is known about fishing cats compared to some other small wildcat species. But significant and sometimes glaring knowledge gaps remain, Adhya says.

In Cambodia, for instance, fishing cats were thought to be extinct until 2015; today, camera traps continue shining a light on new populations there. “We now have the confirmation of fishing cats in at least three sites in very different areas,” says Vanessa Herranz Muñoz, of the Cambodian Fishing Cat Project.

A fishing cat yawns by a riverbank in India.
A fishing cat yawns by a riverbank in India. Multiple initiatives have been initiated in the fishing cat’s range countries to conserve the felid. Image courtesy of Tiasa Adhya/Fishing Cat Project.

Population estimates are scant in other regions too, often complicated by the wet, difficult-to-traverse habitat in which these cats dwell. The IUCN lists the fishing cat as vulnerable, with global estimates of less than 10,000 individuals as of 2010 in at least eight Asian nations.

Earlier this year, researchers in Bangladesh snapped footage of fishing cats scaling 8-metre (26-foot) trees to plunder bird nests. This never-before-witnessed tree-topping behaviour underlines how much remains to be learned about this mysterious species.

Experts do know that fishing cats are adaptable, even able to habituate themselves to degraded lands and human-dominated landscapes, though only to an extent. Conservationists in Sri Lanka are tracking fishing cats that dwell in the nation’s densely populated capital of Colombo, where they sometimes fish in the garden koi ponds of the city’s residents.

Though this adaptability is potentially positive for the cat’s survival, living in close proximity to people brings with it many dangers. This has led researchers to warn that urban habitat could constitute an “ecological trap” for P. viverrinus, exposing it to threats such as disease risk and conflicts with humans.

“Even though we say that the cat is adaptable, I don’t want to say that the cat can thrive in human-dominated landscapes or in cities,” says Ashan Thudugala, co-founder of Sri Lankan NGO Small Cat Advocacy and Research, adding that’s likely the last option for the fishing cat.

Conservationist Ashan Thudugala with a fishing cat road-crossing sign in Sri Lanka.
Conservationist Ashan Thudugala with a fishing cat road-crossing sign in Sri Lanka. A citizen science project has recorded nearly 300 fishing cat roadkill incidents in the last 10 years, he says. Image courtesy of Ashan Thudugala.

Read more: The Fishing Cat: a feline fisher hunting by the night in wetlands


Nature’s wetland ambassador under pressure

Across their range, fishing cats face multiple challenges. These include the risk of becoming roadkill, of disease transmitted by domestic animals, of climate change, and even of plastic pollution. Those threats get bigger for any populations dwelling outside protected areas. Persecution due to human-wildlife conflict, hunting and snaring are other significant threats facing fishing cats.

Above all, however, the survival of this water-loving species is intertwined with wetlands health and habitat preservation, say experts. These watery ecosystems are under ever greater threat as they’re degraded or converted for development, aquaculture or agriculture.

“Wherever a good population of these cats exist, the wetlands are still in good shape and would benefit from increased conservation vigilance,” says Adhya. Likewise, preserving these intact wetlands remains paramount for combating climate change, and for maintaining the diverse ecosystem services these watery enclaves provide, she adds.

For that reason, in her view, fishing cats have a “very important role” to play as ambassadors for endangered wetland ecosystems — standing out as a charismatic cat, albeit one perched on the smaller branch of the Felidae family, with its 45-plus species worldwide.

Promoting this ambassadorial role can help protect neglected wetlands, Adhya argues, pointing to a recent example in West Bengal’s Dankuni wetland complex.

This vast marshland in India’s east is a vital stronghold for fishing cats and numerous other species, but for decades the ecosystem suffered degradation from industry, water pollution and land conversion. After a long litigation battle brought by several NGOs, a declaration in 2022 protected all West Bengal state wetlands larger than 2.25 hectares (5.56 acres).

A fishing cat prepares to pounce on its aquatic prey at Cincinnati Zoo in the U.S.
A fishing cat prepares to pounce on its aquatic prey at Cincinnati Zoo in the U.S. Image by Charles Barilleaux via Flickr.

Adhya says this vital win came in part thanks to the lively presence of the fishing cat, which was declared West Bengal’s state animal back in 2012, and which today is recognised as a protected species and as a fascinating wetland specialist.

In 2020, the fishing cat became an ambassador species for Chilika Lake, a Ramsar site in Odisha, placing the cat at the forefront of wetland conservation there. By 2021, the first ever survey of the species in that locale was underway.

Adhya and her colleagues were at work in Chilika Lake, engaging with local communities and fisherfolk to build awareness, monitor fishing cat populations, and changing species perceptions. Year-round conservation surveillance is now carried out by trained fisherfolk.

“The … entire bigger vision is to link the healthy wetlands to fishing cat conservation and human sustenance,” Adhya explains. “We try to work to instill this feeling [of pride and responsibility] into the community.”

Other organisations in India are now deeply involved in fishing cat preservation, organising successful Fishing Cat Protection Committees, youth camps, conservation initiatives and goat seed banks, which provide community members with livestock to support their livelihoods. Many members of such groups have gone on to form their own groups, with the result that hunting and killing of fishing cats has been reduced in some areas, according to Adhya.

“Awareness seems to have really kicked off in West Bengal,” she adds. “Over the years we’ve been able to create networks of people who now take up individual ventures for fishing cats. There’s a lot of eyes, ears and voices for fishing cats.”

She is now optimistic that concerted action can address smaller threats, such as human-wildlife conflict and hunting, by engaging and empowering communities and residents. “To keep the threat level low and not let it go beyond a certain threshold, I think the presence of conservationists is very important,” she says.

“However, in the bigger scheme of things, if development continues as it is, if business as it is continues, then fishing cats are not going to do well. Because wetlands are going to disappear.”

A fishing cat near Colombo, Sri Lanka, surrounded by trash.
A fishing cat near Colombo, Sri Lanka, surrounded by trash. As an adaptable wetland species, fishing cats are exposed to novel threats such as plastic pollution. Researchers in Sri Lanka found plastic in the scat of the small cat, representing a potential underrecognised conservation challenge. Image courtesy of Sanjaya Adikari.
A community mangrove restoration project in Cambodia.
A community mangrove restoration project in Cambodia. Restoring wetlands is an integral part of efforts to protect fishing cats, says Vanessa Herranz Muñoz. Her organisation is also tackling other threats such as poaching. Small wildcats are being swept up in Southeast Asia’s snaring crisis. Image courtesy of the Cambodian Fishing Cat Project.

Read more: Small cats’ ecology review flags declining conservation status


Joining hands to study and protect fishing cats

Since the Fishing Cat Project began in 2010, similar projects dedicated to protecting the species have blossomed in other range countries. There are now 13 such projects, all operating under the banner of the Fishing Cat Conservation Alliance (FCCA).

Panthera, a global wildcat conservation NGO, provides the FCCA with vital funding and technical support, notes Wai-Ming Wong, director of small cat conservation science at Panthera and vice president of the FCCA.

Still, small cat conservation struggles to overcome a funding vacuum, with much donor money often directed toward helping better-known, bigger, more charismatic cats. But in Cambodia, for example, a thin funding lifeline has helped Herranz Muñoz’s cat conservation project transition from a quest to prove the persistence of the fishing cat there, to an organisation working across multiple sites in the country to protect it. Adhya adds that support through the FCCA helps her own organisation cover basic operation costs, without which her research and advocacy wouldn’t be possible.

This cooperative funding model, largely unique for small cats, provides more than vital cash. Being a small cat group member offers networking opportunities for sharing species data and activism strategies.

Pakistan’s fishing cat project, for example, is led by Zafeer Ahmed Shaikh, a senior high school student and passionate conservationist. Prior to his contacting the fishing cat network, knowledge of the species in Pakistan was scarce, says FCCA president and respected small cat researcher Jim Sanderson. Shaikh and his team are now implementing a range of conservation actions, as they replicate successes based on other FCCA members’ experiences.

Local innovations are flourishing across national boundaries: In Nepal, fishing cat conservationists are operating fish farms to support community livelihoods; in Cambodia, fishing cat advocates are involved in community-driven mangrove restoration; while in Sri Lanka, efforts are targeting severe roadkill risks.

Giridhar Malla, conservationist, biologist and founder of India’s Godavari Fishing Cat Project, sets up a camera trap with a local community member.
Giridhar Malla, conservationist, biologist and founder of India’s Godavari Fishing Cat Project, sets up a camera trap with a local community member. Empowering local people to understand, care for and live alongside the small cat is vital to its conservation, he says. Image courtesy of Giridhar Malla/Godavari Fishing Cat Project.
A fishing cat in India.
A fishing cat in India. The Fishing Cat Conservation Alliance is a network of conservation organisations active across the species’ range. Members highlight how this organisational model supports funding, networking and knowledge sharing — vital for an understudied and underrecognised small felid like the fishing cat. Image courtesy of the Fishing Cat Project.

Though the latter is less of a threat in Pakistan than in Sri Lanka, replicating this strategy has reaped unexpected benefits there, says Shaikh. “The [wildlife warning] signs have been popular among local communities … with some local leaders wanting them placed in their areas as well.” He adds, “We have been able to showcase many more species including jungle cats [Felis chaus] and other native fauna,” using the signs.

Thanks to these and other profile-raising tactics, the fishing cat now benefits from far more conservation action than it did a decade ago. But this felid will remain locked in an existential battle so long as its core habitat is under threat, warns Giridhar Malla, a conservationist and founder of India’s Godavari Fishing Cat Project, an FCCA member.

“We want the communities to change, we want people to know the fishing cat,” he says. “The threats are real and ongoing and there is an urgent need to protect the species. That’s what we are committed to work on.”


Read more: What’s on the menu? Understanding the diverse diet of fishing cats


 

CITATION:

Chowdhury, S. U., Chowdhury, A. R., Ahmed, S., & Bin Muzaffar, S. (2015). Human-fishing cat conflicts and conservation needs of fishing cats in Bangladesh. CATnews, 62, 4-7. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/343471962_Human-fishing_cat_conflicts_and_conservation_needs_of_fishing_cats_in_Bangladesh

Ganguly, D., & Adhya, T. (2021). How fishing cats Prionailurus viverrinus Bennett, 1833 fish: Describing a felid’s strategy to hunt aquatic prey. Mammalia, 86(2), 182-189. doi:10.1515/mammalia-2020-0133

Malla, G., Ray, P., Srinivas, Y., Malla, S., Reddy, B. T., Hayward, M., & Sivakumar, K. (2024). Fish on the platter! Dietary habits of fishing cats (Prionailurus viverrinus) in the Godavari Delta, India. Mammal Research, 1-10. doi:10.1007/s13364-023-00731-0

Sadik, A. S., & Akash, M. (2024). A treetop diner: Camera trapping reveals novel arboreal foraging by fishing cats on colonial nesting birds in Bangladesh. Mammalia, 88(2), 100-105. doi:10.1515/mammalia-2023-0074

Phosri, K., Tantipisanuh, N., Chutipong, W., Gore, M. L., Giordano, A. J., & Ngoprasert, D. (2021). Fishing cats in an anthropogenic landscape: A multi-method assessment of local population status and threats. Global Ecology and Conservation, 27, e01615. doi:10.1016/j.gecco.2021.e01615

Ratnayaka, A. A., Serieys, L. E., Prasad, T., Leighton, G. R., Sanderson, J. G., & Leung, L. K. (2021). Urban habitat use and home ranges of fishing cats in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Mammalian Biology, 102(1), 271-277. doi:10.1007/s42991-021-00198-z


This article was first published on Mongabay.com.


 

Banner image: Fishing cats are uniquely adapted to life in wetland habits. These cats are known to exist in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan and Thailand. The species may already be extinct in Vietnam and Indonesia. Image courtesy of Cloudtail the Snow Leopard via Flickr.

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