It had been at least 35 days out in Nepal’s Parsa National Park at Halkhoria Lake and my student Sashank Sharma and I had not spotted any evidence of our species of interest, the Fishing Cat. We had been checking and re-checking our camera traps, which were recording 24 hours a day, and had found almost every species but Fishing Cat.
It wasn’t until we moved about 12 kilometers south of the lake, in an area with private fish ponds in Bodhban of Nepal’s Bara District, that we came across a Fishing Cat. But it wasn’t exactly what we had hoped for. We found a skin of a Fishing Cat killed in retaliation. The cat had been preying upon the poultry kept in a local, homemade coop, which was not strong enough to safeguard the rooster. According to the locals, the Fishing Cat was also killed for being a nuisance and removing fish from private fish ponds.
As sad as we were about discovering the Fishing Cat in this state, we were also excited about this finding. It extended the distribution range of Fishing Cat in Bara District, making this a discovery of the cat in a new area. That was in 2016. Since then, we’ve done some community outreach in the human-dominated landscape of the Bara District and additional Fishing Cat research, and we’ve started to see some notable changes in the community’s attitude around Fishing Cats.
We launched an extensive conservation awareness program for school children after the discovery of the Fishing Cat as a way to reduce the threat of retaliatory killings in the future. School children and school teachers were equally enthusiastic to learn about this rare species of small cat that is found in their area. We conducted conservation awareness programs in 20 private and public schools of Bodhban and Simraungadh.
Laddu KC provided shelter in his home for our team while we conducted a study in Bodhban, Bara. He not only provided us with shelter, but was enthusiastic about our wildlife study and told us about wildlife encounters in the village. Based on his information and the rapid response of Dipendra Adhikari, a former employee of the Zoological Society of London based in Bara, and current team members of this project, we were able to rescue two orphaned baby small Indian Civets from the area. School children actually found the abandoned civets, thinking they might be Fishing Cat babies. Our conservation awareness program was working. We had successfully persuaded the school children to care about conservation. As the result in part of our efforts, these children have also started showing their enthusiasm to learn about other biodiversity in the area. However, we didn’t yet know the reaction of the local community more generally to the conservation of the Fishing Cat, especially with the cost of the loss of their poultry and fish. We also knew that the conservation of the Fishing Cat should not be the concern and responsibility of local people only, who may be managing their own struggles.
In a new and current project supported in part by the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund and Panthera, we have set cameras at the private fish ponds of the locals to determine the frequency of Fishing Cat visits to the ponds, ultimately to estimate the extent of fish loss. Swechya Shrestha, a master’s level environmental studies student, is part of the team and counting the frequency of Fishing Cats in the field. We are still conducting the surveys and will continue to do so until March. So far we have found Fishing Cats visiting near riverbanks, fish ponds and even the poultry chicken coop near the house.
We are also now conducting discussions with and conservation awareness programs for the elder members of the local community. We have also discussed with Bharat Bhandari, the mayor of Kolbi Muncipality (where the study area is located), the prioritization of conserving the Fishing Cat at the local government level. Nepal very recently adopted a federal system of government and we now have multiple level of governments. In human-dominated landscapes, conservation of species requires not only working with local community but also with local government and if both stakeholders work together it is easier to achieve the goal of conserving species.
To economically support the local community, motivate its members on conservation, and mitigate conflict between Fishing Cats and humans, we are giving away 10 strong chicken coops in the area most affected by the human-wildlife conflict. We have already prepared a sample coop and provided it to a local family.
In addition to working in the field we are preparing a policy brief on Fishing Cat conservation based on the results of the project, which will eventually be submitted to state government and central government with the recommendations of adding the Fishing Cat to the protected list of species. Currently, Fishing Cat prosecutors outside the protected areas face no legal punishment.
Over the course of our work for two years, we have not only discovered the cat from previously unknown sites, but also conducted conservation awareness program and initiated conservation activities to motivate the local community to actively take part in conservation of the Fishing Cat. I believe that with regular monitoring and building good communication with local partners, we can improve conservation of the Fishing Cat in the human-dominated landscape of Terai in Nepal.