In early August this year, staff at the Coringa Wildlife Sanctuary in coastal Andhra Pradesh wrapped up their first census of the elusive fishing cat, a species that is otherwise shrouded in scarce, dated information.

The population estimation across 320 square km of protected mangrove forests in the Godavari delta was inspired by the annual tiger census that is conducted in tiger reserves across the country, explained Divisional Forest Officer Ananth Shankar.

“We are now waiting for the data to be analysed,” he added.

If that goal comes to fruition, it would be the first scientific effort to monitor a species that is one of the least studied wild cat species globally and is facing multiple threats in India.

Fishing cats are nocturnal species, that catch fish from fresh and saltwater wetlands. This individual peeks out of mangrove forests of the Godavari delta in Andhra Pradesh. Photo credit: Pranav Tamarapalli/Wikimedia Commons.
Fishing cats are nocturnal species, that catch fish from fresh and saltwater wetlands. This individual peeks out of mangrove forests of the Godavari delta in Andhra Pradesh. Photo credit: Pranav Tamarapalli/Wikimedia Commons.

Fishing cats (Prionailurus viverrinus) are medium-sized wild cats that owe their names to their eating habits. Unlike what we may imagine of feline creatures, fishing cats are well adapted to life by the water. They appear to be good swimmers and have partially webbed feet that may help them navigate water and wet soils.

The cats have an interesting technique for catching fish. They sit at the edge of water bodies, skim the water surface with their paw, mimicking the movement of an insect. Any hungry fish coming to the surface to investigate is caught.

Whether freshwater lakes lined with reed and grasses or dense mangrove forests in brackish water, the cat seems to like it all. So, reports of the species appear across wetlands in South and Southeast Asia, but always in patches.

A nocturnal creature of the wetlands

In India for instance, fishing cats have been recorded in wetland areas in Rajasthan, including the Bharatpur bird sanctuary, around the Yamuna floodplains in Agra, in the different parts of the vast Terai landscape, protected areas like the Dudhwa Tiger Reserve and Corbett National Park and the extensive lower Gangetic floodplains and the Sundarbans in West Bengal.

Head further North and East from here, the species has been reported in Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. Travel south from West Bengal and records emerge from around the Chilika lake and Bhitarkanika National Park in Orissa, a single stray record of a rescued individual in Jharkhand and then substantial populations in the Godavari and most recently in Krishna river delta in Andhra Pradesh.

Despite this widespread presence, ecologists and forest departments alike have been slow to study the species.

“Practically all aspects of the cat’s ecology is unknown,” declared Shekhar Kolipaka, a researcher with the University of Leiden, Netherlands. Kolipaka, was the first person to discover the presence of fishing cats in Coringa, during a survey in 2006.

Between 2014-2017, scientists from the Wildlife Institute of India conducted a comprehensive camera trap survey in the sanctuary as part of a UNDP project to protect East Godavari wetlands. During the three year period, Giridhar Malla, one of the researchers from the Wildlife Institute of India team, found 54 individual fishing cats in the sanctuary.

Of these, Malla started tracking the fate of 15 closely, using camera traps and boat surveys to understand their ecology in detail, such as their movement patterns in the mangroves, inter and intra-specific interactions between individuals, interactions with humans (fishermen and crab hunters).

Now Coringa’s authorities hope that the 2018 camera trapping exercise will become an annual event. “Hopefully, we can formalise the process and include it in the Sanctuary’s management plan,” said DFO Shankar from Coringa.

But the Coringa Wildlife Sanctuary is only a small part coastal Andhra. The Godavari and Krishna rivers flow through coastal Andhra creating an extensive network of mangrove forests. Researchers and conservationists are discovering that fishing cats also exist in these unprotected mangrove forests.

In 2014, conservationists Murthy Kantimahanti, who runs the Eastern Ghats Wildlife Society and Ashwin Naidu who steers the Fishing Cat Conservancy, found a population of fishing cats in the unprotected mangrove forests outside the Krishna Wildlife Sanctuary.

This was the southernmost population of the species in the country. Kantimahanti is now surveying the coastal districts of Visakhapatnam and Vizianagaram in north Andhra, adjoining the drier North-Eastern Ghats.

More such surveys seem to be in the offing.

In West Bengal, where the fishing cat was declared the state animal in 2012, the Calcutta University and the Zoological Survey of India are conducting its first state-wide survey this year, just to establish the presence of the species. The survey commissioned by the West Bengal Biodiversity Board excludes protected areas.

In the ongoing two-year survey, experts first zero-in on the habitats where the species has been “potentially spotted.” “This is mainly achieved through community participation: by questioning locals and deploying college students pursuing biological sciences in local institutions, one gets an idea of the location of a potential fishing cat habitat,” said Goutam Saha of the Department of Zoology, Calcutta University. “Records from biodiversity registers and biodiversity management committees help scope out potential spots.”

Other clues are presence of associated fauna such as palm civets and otters, said Ajanta Dey of NGO NEWS, a key participant in the survey. “Once enough evidence emerges, a two square kilometre by two square kilometre grid is laid out in those selected habitats and within these pockets further investigation is conducted: scat samples, pugmarks are examined and camera traps positioned at vantage points,” said Dey.

Community participation is crucial to ensure camera traps stay in position since they are laid out outside protected areas, in human habitations, he added.

As per initial observations, Dey and Saha point out hostilities towards the fishing cat in the form of retaliatory killings as one of the major threats. Fishing cats are known to feed on fish from fish ponds and occasionally poultry, incurring the wrath of members of local residents.

There are instances of mistaken identity too.

“In some cases they are mistaken for civets and killed. They are also perceived as tigers prowling at night and attacked as a precautionary measure. And this is complicated as their wetlands habitat disappear. Poaching for cat skin, although minor, is another factor,” Dey explained.

Identity mismatch also emerged as a complication in surveys. “Often villagers confuse the fishing cat with associated fauna such as palm civets or otters. To clarify, students fan out across hamlets with handouts that have pictures of associated fauna. Members of the local community are quizzed to ascertain whether the animals spotted are fishing cats or associated fauna such as palm civets. Fishing cats being nocturnal also makes their tracking difficult,” Dey said.

Hard to study

Yet, Kolipaka felt that these surveys, which mainly focused on establishing a presence and mapping the distribution of the fishing cats, were unable to shed more light on the cat’s ecology.

A fishing cat prowls near a fish pond in West Bengal at night. Photo credit: Shantanu Prasad
A fishing cat prowls near a fish pond in West Bengal at night. Photo credit: Shantanu Prasad

Moreover, wildlife biologists across the country point out the disproportionate amount of attention and money that is directed towards larger species of cats such as tigers, lions and leopards.

Ashwin Naidu – who confirmed the fishing cat population in the Krishna Delta with Murthy Kantimahanti – counted the number of scientific studies published on all 38 species of wild cats in the world and plotted them on a graph, comparing them to the size of each cat species.

“It was such a clear pattern,” he said. The larger the cat species, the more the number of scientific studies ascribed to it. “As the size reduced the number of papers reduced.”

Multiple threats

Although there is a paucity of ecological data on the species, most people working on fishing cats seem to agree about one fact: the species is threatened.

Conservationists from both West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh, point to aquaculture as one of the biggest culprits, erasing wetlands.

“If I had unlimited power and funds the first thing I would do is to stop the incessant expansion of aquaculture ponds, particularly in the coastal regions since they are the biggest threat to mangrove forests,” declared Giridhar Malla.

The other problem according to Tiasa Adhya, a Bengal based conservationist who runs an NGO called the Human and Environment Alliance League, was the lack of respect for wetland habitats in India.

“For instance, the Ministry of Rural Development, Government of India, has categorised marshy waterlogged areas (the exact habitat of the fishing cat) as ‘wasteland’ in the Wasteland Atlas of India, 2010,” she said.

“The Ministry of Water Resources, Government of India, in its Command Area Development and Water Management Program, has asked for water logged areas to be reclaimed. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research, National Academy of Agricultural Sciences wants to convert ‘wastelands’ into ‘productive lands’,” she added.

Community-based conservation

To prevent this conversion of wetlands into industries, Adhya explained that she and her colleagues were implementing a combination of awareness programmes and community run conservation efforts in the Howrah district, such as creating Fishing Cat Protection Committees in each of the 14 blocks of the district.

Interested residents of villages from each block, including Gram Panchayat members, became members of these committees.

The committees today also participate in another program called “Know thy neighbours” in which interested local residents are given camera traps to record and monitor fishing cats living in the wetlands around their homes. The residents are encouraged to name the cats they capture in the cameras and follow their movements. The aim is to create both an emotional attachment with the species as well as collect baseline data according to Adhya.

A local NGO is also attempting to compensate villagers for livestock losses by fishing cats. Joydeb Pradhan, a resident of the Sarada village, runs an NGO called the Sarada Prasad Tirtha Janakalyan Samity. Pradhan began an initiative called the Seed Goat Fund, where a few economically backward families received pregnant goats. The families had to return one of the two goats that were born to a sort of a goat fund. Whenever someone from community lost a goat to fishing cats, they could avail a goat from the goat fund.

Adhya, who helped Pradhan raise funds felt the initiative had indirect benefits. “Since the community was itself monitoring goat predation and we were in no way involved in the implementation or monitoring, very soon it became clear to them that goats are not attacked as widely as previously thought,” she said.

The involvement of the community was also a way of fostering ownership to fulfil a larger aim, explained Adhya. All these projects fall under a 30 square kilometre wetland complex in the Amta II Block of the Howrah district. The group have applied for this region to be declared a Biodiversity Heritage Site, under the Indian Biological Diversity Act, 2002. Adhya hopes that this tag will protect traditional reed bed cultivation practices and hinder large-scale industrialisation in the area

Alternative livelihoods

While these efforts continue, in a small corner of the Amta Block, another project related to fishing cats is making its way – ecotourism.

In the Kalbansh village in Howrah district, a naturalist is beginning a eco-tourism initiative, a homestay that offers fishing cat safaris. Fishing cats are often seen in fish ponds owned by residents of the village. Photo credit: Shantanu Prasad.
In the Kalbansh village in Howrah district, a naturalist is beginning a eco-tourism initiative, a homestay that offers fishing cat safaris. Fishing cats are often seen in fish ponds owned by residents of the village. Photo credit: Shantanu Prasad.

“We do sustainable tourism, that is around rare species, and we do it in a place where government is not working or there is no protection,” claims Shantanu Prasad, an engineer turned wildlife enthusiast, who has created a luxury homestay in a village called Kalbansh, in the Amta Block. “It is called Baghrol Basa, which means home of the fishing cat,” he explained.

Guests are taken around the area at night in modified autorickshaw locally called Toto. “We cover about 30 square kilometres, about 10-12 villages and we search for fishing cats every night,” he said. “And we see them almost every night.”

Fishing cats were most often sighted around fishponds owned by local villagers, because it was easy for the cat to catch fish from them, according to Prasad. This leads to conflict and retaliatory killing because the poor community members depend on their daily catch for sustenance, which several conservationists consider to be a major threat in this region. Through the tourism business Prasad hoped to compensate residents for their loss with seedling (young fish), so that they wouldn’t retaliate.

Kolipaka, whose fishing cat journey began in Coringa, is now collaborating with Prasad with some very specific aims. Using the homestay as a base, the researcher, his students and Prasad hoped to survey fishing cat distribution in roughly 5000 square kilometre area. According to Kolipaka the project would also help identify local partners who would help in monitoring fishing cats.

Increasing awareness among local communities appears to be a common theme among all conservation efforts. In mangrove forests outside of the Coringa Wildlife Sanctuary, Malla now works with children of the local fishing community.

“Owing to factors such as poverty and poor school infrastructure these children do not even get proper education and so have very less opportunities to learn about wildlife conservation or animal behaviour,” explained Malla who believes children could be great ambassadors for fishing cat conservation.

Meanwhile, in the unprotected mangrove forests of the Krishna Delta, members of the Fishing Cat Conservancy are experimenting with a project, which would encourage preserving mangrove forests and thereby fishing cat habitats.

The ultimate goal seems to be to find a livelihood option that does not require mangrove felling.

Pranav Tamarapalli, the lead field conservationist at FCC, pointed out that aquaculture in the region was largely illegal because mangrove felling was banned by law. But unwilling to directly attack communities that were largely poor, FCC decided to find a more lucrative sustainable livelihood option for the region.

“So, we came up with the mangrove crab idea,” said Tamarapalli.

Attempts are on to grow mangrove mud crabs in these crab boxes in natural mangrove creeks. Photo credit: Fishing Cat Conservancy.
Attempts are on to grow mangrove mud crabs in these crab boxes in natural mangrove creeks. Photo credit: Fishing Cat Conservancy.

Fishers try to look for mangrove crabs in the wild, a time consuming process that rarely yields enough large crabs. Typically, crabs are grown in enclosures called crab boxes in commercial aquaculture farms.

“Our idea is to keep these crab boxes in natural mangrove channels,” said Tamarapalli. “They are perfect for their survival because it is their natural habitat.” Tamarapalli and his team are testing survival and growth of both species right now by placing crab boxes in mangrove channels adjoining three villages in the Krishna delta.

“If it goes well, we will be distributing these boxes to locals over there, for use,” he said. The team also planned to test crab boxes in abandoned shrimp farms in the delta. “We want to experiment with testing crab boxes alongside mangrove reforestation in these farms.”

This article first appeared on Mongabay.