Caught on camera: Nepal’s rare fishing cat

Cats generally are not fond of water, and avoid swimming. But not fishing cats.

These medium-sized wild cats of South and Southeast Asia thrive near wetlands and are found ‘fishing’ for prey on ponds, rivers and lakes.

But habitat loss and destruction of wetlands, and declining fish population have led to the decline of these cats. The endangered cats had not been spotted in Nepal's Jagadishpur reservoir (listed on the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance) since 2014, until this year.

Fishing cats used to seen Bardia, Chitwan and Parsa National Parks and in Kosi Tappu Wildlife Reserve in Nepal’s Tarai, and mainly prefer the floodplains of the Karnali, Babai, Rapti, Narayani, Kosi and Reu Rivers and the Ghodaghodi Tal.

Earlier a team of researchers went to look for this elusive cat and to understand its current status in Jagdishpur. Local villagers confirmed that there had indeed been a decrease in sightings in the recent years. Many others in the community had little or no knowledge of the species and its habits.

Camera traps were deployed and a local team member Anil Chaudhary was provided with the responsibility to monitor the feed for 15 days. The next two weeks were crucial.

Within days there had been possible sightings on camera stations 64m, 298m and 468m away from the reservoir. Replaying the clips, it was confirmed that they were indeed fishing cats.

Threatened by destruction of wetlands and poaching, fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus) population has declined at an alarming rate within all range countries and is listed as Vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

Considered indicator species, their absence or presence also signifies if a body of water is ecologically sound and flourishing. Besides fish, they also prey on smaller animals and insects that destroy agricultural crops. But farmers and fishermen consider them a nuisance and often beat them to death.

Fishing cat’s nature to hunt in water sets it apart from other land dwelling felines. It has water resistant fur and webbed feet to help with swimming and fishing. It is also about twice the size of domestic cats with head to body length ranging from 57 to 78cm and tail, which is 20 to 30cm long.

Based on its shape, size and diet and its inability to roar, fishing cat is classified into the group of small cats. But of the 12 species of wild cats found in Nepal, only five (Royal Bengal Tiger, Snow Leopard, Clouded Leopard, Lynx and Leopard Cat) are included in the protected species list under the National Park and Wildlife Conservation Act 1973.

Nepal has however, categorised it as endangered but there has been no conservation efforts. It is important to raise community awareness about the ecological importance of this animal, especially now that the sightings have been made.

Children in local schools should be taught about them and interested locals should be encouraged to work on their conservation.

This year’s study was supported by the Rufford Foundation and the Small Mammals Conservation and Research Foundation.

Swechhya Shrestha is a graduate of Environmental Science and research assistant at the Small Mammals Conservation and Research Foundation (SMCRF) in Kathmandu.

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