Fishing cats, the remarkably patient animals that are now vulnerable

Swati Sanyal Tarafdar | Updated on May 22, 2020

Study in patience: Fishing cats can wait hours on end for the right moment to swoop down on prey   -  ANJANI KUMAR

Often mistaken for tiger cubs or well-fed feline pets, fishing cats are fascinating animals in their own right

* Fishing cats are good swimmers and are can wait for hours on end to attack the prey

* The IUCN Red List classifies the fishing cats as ‘vulnerable’ animals

* Fishing cats are found in the marshy wetlands of northern and eastern India and the mangroves of the east coast

On January 20, a Bengali daily reported that a tiger cub had been spotted on the outskirts of Kolkata. Soon, there were multiple stories about the sighting. Some people said they had seen the cub; others said it roared. A few held they had found the carcass of a half-eaten cow near the site. Later, an official from the forest department clarified that the animal was not a tiger cub but its smaller cousin — a fishing cat, an animal named after its favourite prey. The revelation took the wind out of the tiger tales; sighting a fishing cat was simply not as thrilling and surely not worth spinning stories about.

Fishing cats, however, do not deserve the slight. Instead, they are worthy of admiration. The animals are graceful and have beautiful hides with unique spots that help in identification. Their webbed paws make them good swimmers. But what really sets them apart is their unparalleled patience — they can wait for hours on end for the right moment to attack their prey, mostly fish and crustaceans, and the occasional rodents.

Almost twice as large as house cats, they can tolerate humans, but would rather avoid them. Male cats tend to be more aggressive than the females, says Giridhar Malla, a Wildlife Conservation Network scholar at Fishing Cat Working Group, an association of researchers and conservationists working to protect the feline. For the past five years, Malla, who is pursuing his PhD at the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, has been following the trails of 15 fishing cats in Andhra Pradesh, using camera traps. He has tracked their movement patterns, interactions, food habits and behaviour. “I have enough reasons to conclude that they are not actually nocturnal, as we have believed so far. They wait until there’s complete quiet before coming out at night for hunting. Their behaviours are affected by the availability of food and the lunar tides that affect the flow of fish,” Malla tells BLink.

He has also seen how patient they can be. He watched a fishing cat for eight hours as it waited for the right time to attack the prey — a fish. While the researcher’s motorboat bobbed on the water somewhere in the Coringa creek in Andhra Pradesh, he observed the feline from a few feet away, its gaze not shifting from the water as it followed the movement of a fish. It would check out the potential catch, skimming the water with a paw, and return to its spot, seemingly unhappy.

“This happened quite a few times. It paced some more until it set its eyes on another fish in the water, checked it and let it go. It wasn’t until almost eight hours later that it finally dipped its head in the water and picked up a huge, huge catch,” Malla says. Fishing cats catch their prey by the mouth and never by the paws, he adds.

The call of a fishing cat might sound something between the bark of a dog and the quack of a duck. Researchers have observed the animal’s tendency to keep very specific territories, marked by scat (dropping). Malla, however, points out that the cats are not as mean as they sound and he has seen pairs, and even an entire family, complete with a cub, together. “The mother ate her own catch and didn’t share it with the kid. Maybe she was teaching it to hunt,” he says.

Fishing cats thrive in the marshy wetlands of northern and eastern India and the mangroves of the east coast. In 2016, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, a critical indicator of the health of the world’s biodiversity, identified the fishing cat as a ‘vulnerable’ species.

Destruction of wetlands and the resultant loss of habitat are killing the fishing cats. Another reason for their shrinking numbers is the lack of awareness about the animal. In West Bengal, the cats routinely get run over on highways. They are also killed by people who mistake them for tiger cubs. Some are poached for their hide and meat.

Following relentless efforts by local conservationists, West Bengal adopted the fishing cat as its state animal in 2012. The step helped create widespread awareness and ensure punishment to those harming the cats. A two-year survey to estimate its population was undertaken in 2017, but didn’t make much progress. “No results as of now,” confirms Tiasa Adhya, a wildlife conservationist in the region.

The situation is comparatively better in Andhra Pradesh, where an active forest department and alert voluntary groups have helped raise awareness and deal with poachers. A census of the cat population was conducted in the protected areas of the Coringa Wildlife Sanctuary in 2018 using 57 camera traps. In April 2019, the forest department announced the presence of 115 cats, says Ananth Shankar, DFO (wildlife), Rajahmundry, Andhra Pradesh.

The Fishing Cat Conservancy, a group of volunteering conservationists based in Andhra Pradesh, tracks the cats outside the reserve forests and along the coast, in a bid to estimate their population and create awareness about them. The group is also striving to regrow mangroves to create a healthier ecosystem for the wild cats.

Swati Sanyal Tarafdar is an independent social and environmental justice journalist

Published on May 22, 2020

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