Why the species is threatened with extinction in the wild

This was the first global estimate of the fishing cat population made outside the protected area network.

Photo: iStock

The census of fishing cats at Chilika has encouraging news for observers and wildlife experts. The total abundance of cat species at Chilika was found to be 176 with an estimated range of 131-237 individuals. This was the first global estimate of the fishing cat population made outside the protected area network. The valuation study was conducted by the Chilika Development Authority (CDA) in collaboration with The Fishing Cat Project (TFCP).

The two-phase survey was conducted in 2021 and 2022 with up to 150 camera traps, deployed for almost 30 days. Data were analyzed using the spatially explicit capture-recapture (SECR) method. Phase I was conducted in the 115 km2 swamps present in the northern and northeastern part of Chilika and its surroundings in 2021. Phase II was conducted in the Parikuda side with the coastal islands of Chilika in 2022.

More encouraging news was that the census involved local fishermen and Chilika villagers, instead of alienating them. According to CDA Executive Director Susanta Nanda, the locals were the main participants in this exercise. “Without their support, the first population estimate outside protected areas of this globally threatened cat species would not have been possible,” he said.

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The study is special because, since the 1800s, only a handful of detailed scientific studies have been published on fishing cats – several based on captive fishing cats. A Times of India Report 2017 says: “A survey of its population status has probably been carried out previously only in the Coringa Wildlife Sanctuary in Andhra Pradesh, a protected area.”

The first marsh fishermen

Twice as big as a house cat, the fishing cat is what its name means – a cat that is good at fishing, and therefore also an agile swimmer. It looks a bit like a leopard, with black markings – spots and stripes – all over its body, and its paws are partially webbed to help it propel itself through water and prowl over muddy, swampy land. .

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Again, its main diet is in its name: fish. But they are not very picky eaters. They are what wildlife experts call “generalists”, meaning they opportunistically feed on what is available. Thus, everything that is locally available is on the menu: fish, small mammals, aquatic insects, shells, amphibians and even lizards!

In India (and elsewhere too), the fishing cat is usually found in two types of habitats within a wetland – mangroves like the Sundarbans and Pichavaram, and swamps. They have also been recorded in the foothills of the Himalayas along the Ganges and Brahmaputra valleys and in the Western Ghats. And apart from India, they have been recorded throughout South Asia – Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand and Indonesia, although the extent of their range and distribution has was a bit uncertain.

Although they look adorable, they are also terribly shy. The elusive Night Fishers, however, hold their own in the face of a threat – even if the one standing in front is a human. But their lonely, elusive, nocturnal lives have partly proven their undoing. Their life and habits make them difficult for humans to spot in the wild, making them one of the least understood wildcats in the world.

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Why are they threatened?

Their homes, to begin with, are virtually destroyed. In India, a total of 42 sites are considered wetlands of international importance because of their biodiversity, according to the Ramsar Convention — the international agreement on the conservation of wetlands.

Despite this, the destruction of wetlands in the name of development activities is rampant. Even in the remaining wetlands, fishing cats inevitably come into conflict with humans for food. Wetlands, directly and indirectly, support thousands of people – fishers, farmers and indigenous communities. Conflict is inevitable and has led to retaliatory killings by humans in the past. However, awareness has grown over the years and their tormentors are now turning into saviors.

Related is the problem of aquaculture, a threat to wetlands across the country. Fish farmers dig ponds along the coastline or wetlands and add chemical fish feed to them. Naturally occurring fish and shrimp eat this, grow bigger, and fetch better rates in the market. Unfortunately, this also attracts fishing cats, which leads to clashes with humans. However, chemical feeding and artificial fish farming also alters the natural salinity of the soil below and around it. Within a few years, the groundwater is too polluted to support more fish, and fish farmers move on, digging another pond to raise more fish. The collateral damage in all this drama of man intermingling with nature is wildlife. In this case, the habitat of catfish.

They are also poached for their fur, similar to that of a leopard. However, the pain may not be worth the poaching. In accordance with Indian law, they are protected under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act – the same protected status granted to the national animal tiger.

The species is listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List, which means it faces a high threat of extinction in the wild. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) lists the fishing cat in Appendix II, part of Article IV of CITES, which governs international trade in this species. Annex II includes the list of animals whose trade must be controlled in order to avoid a use incompatible with their survival.

However, more than anything else, there needs to be more awareness about the animal. What we do not see, we do not understand and therefore do not find it imperative to protect and preserve it. Fishing cats bear witness to this.