When in search of a Fishing Cat, you have to think like a Fishing Cat. Our search started in December of 2015 and ended, finally, on Feb. 3, 2016. My German colleague and I had come to Nepal’s Sunsari District, a human-dominated landscape, with the financial support of Rufford Small Grants and Wild Oasis, to set camera traps and conduct a two-month long field study in Nepal’s Ramdhuni Forest and the Prakashpur area of the Sunsari District. We had found pugmarks, scat, dead individuals and even gotten a camera trap photo of Fishing Cat during the study. However, we wanted to observe the Fishing Cat directly for ourselves.
The Fishing Cat is one of the most elusive and mysterious small cats in the world. Known as “Pani Biralo” in Nepali, it was recorded for the first time in Nepal by Brian Hodgson in the early 19th century. Fishing Cats are food and habitat specialists. They are mostly associated with wetlands and marshy areas where they prey upon fish and other riparian or aquatic species. The cats were once widespread throughout southeast and southern Asia, but due to the destruction of wetlands and fragmentation of habitat, they are now distributed in fragments throughout Java, Thailand, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, India and Pakistan. Fishing Cats are listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as their populations continue to decline. We had been regularly conducting Fishing Cat studies in Nepal since 2014 and we hoped to start getting some answers.
Despite our best efforts, staying on the bank of a fish pond from 6 p.m. until midnight, we never spotted a Fishing Cat—until we changed our tactic. On February 3 of 2016, we decided to up the ante by staying the whole night. We created a separate blind for each of us and sat there, camera in hand. After 90 minutes, I sensed something moving from the bush. I waited for few minutes and finally decided to switch the flashlight on. There, where I pointed the light, sat an adult Fishing Cat on the bank of the pond, just above our blind. It was about 10 meters away from me. I tried to remain as quiet as I could, but my heart was pounding wildly. I wasn’t sure if I could direct my camera at the cat without making any noise. I could not breathe until I focused the camera and fixed my lenses to take the video footage of the cat. It was a rare moment. The cat did not move for 11 minutes. Finally it yawned few times and quietly left the site. It was perfect timing–I had almost lost hope of getting any footage of a Fishing Cat as we were approaching the end of our study. This capture made my day.
The Fishing Cat we recorded was near the area where a male Fishing Cat was recorded nearly 100 years ago, in 1919. The area was then called Bankalwa, Morang. Bankalwa is located about1 3 kilometers east of the current Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve. We recorded the eastern-most distribution of Fishing Cat at the eastern boundary of the Ramdhuni Forest in a Lalpur village in a community fish pond. We also found two more locations of Fishing Cat in Prakashpur village. During the study we found that the Fishing Cats are being killed in retaliation by the fish farmers and watchdogs kept to guard the private fish ponds. Similarly, we recorded the poisoning of the Sunsari and Seraha Rivers by the local community for fishing. The local ethnic community of the village use poison to kill the fish, which not only kills fish but other animals as well. The poisoned fish also have negative health effects and when I inquired about it with the community they said the poison goes away once they grill the fish in the fire. The next day, a Golden Jackal was found dead near the river, most likely due to the poisoned water.
We did not find a dead Fishing Cat from poisoned water, but they certainly face the same fate as the Golden Jackal. We also recorded a dead Jungle Cat killed by poison in retaliation for taking poultry in Jhumka, Sunsari. In our discussions with villagers, we learned that Fishing Cats are executed by using live wire in iron mesh at the bank of fish ponds. Fishing Cats are also killed for bush meat consumption and for the collection of hides by local healers. We were told one such killing had happened recently, but we could not confirm this because we were not allowed to see the hide.
The results of our survey and discussion with villagers highlight just how important conservation awareness programs in the area are. Since that survey, we have conducted awareness programs for more than 1,000 children of 16 local schools, and distributed books. Conservation of Fishing Cat in this area requires continuous outreach programs and conservation activities that involve the local community and regular monitoring.
I wonder what the cat that we observed that night is doing right now. Is it still alive or has it faced its fate like the Golden Jackal from the poisoned water or was it killed by electrocution or for bush meat? We still need to do more to change the status quo on the conservation of this forgotten cat thorough regular monitoring and education, and ensure their survival for at least the next 100 years in this changing world.