Curiosity did not kill these cats

Fishing cat found dead in small sugarcane patch, approx. 20m from the road. Photo: DIVISION FOREST OFFICE, NAWALPARASI

In January this year, my husband sent me an image of a small dead cat. A forest officer in West Nawalparasi had sent it to him to find out what it was. I recognised immediately from its pelt that it was a fishing cat, Prionailurus viverrinus, possibly male. 

As a researcher of fishing cats, I was shocked by the specimen and decided to explore it. Early next morning, I left for Nawalparasi to inspect the site at Pratappur where forest guard Ram Piyari led me to where he had buried the carcass of the cat. 

The cause of the death could not be determined, but when Piyari had found it, he said there was blood coming out of its mouth. Based on the size and other physical features, it was possibly a young (sub-adult) male weighing less than 5kg. It was found on a downward slope some 20m from a gravel road, and did not have any scars suggesting a struggle or fight. 

So the most logical conclusion was that the cat was roadkill. Growing up, my dog had died in similar circumstances after an auto-rickshaw ran over it, and he had no external injury. It died after a few minutes some distance away. Since then, I have witnessed several similar cases of wildlife being killed on highways.

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Fishing cats are medium-sized wild cats from South and Southeast Asia, living near wetlands and are found ‘fishing’ for prey on ponds, rivers and lakes. They are an indicator species, meaning their presence signifies that the body of water is ecologically sound.

But increasing threats from habitat loss, destruction of wetlands and poaching have contributed to the rapid decline in their numbers in Asia, and it is listed as Vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

In December 2021, I was involved in collaring fishing cats in the Sunsari district to understand their ecology in the human dominated landscape. The research included their movement patterns between fish farming communities along the Kosi River. 

One day I received an image of two kittens from the Parsa National Park (PNP) Office, asking to verify their species. They were unmistakably P. viverrinus kittens, recognisable through their yellowish-grey fur and black lines and spots.

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Some farmers in the Bara district had taken them to their house from the sugarcane field where the kittens had been found. After a few days, the farmers handed them to the District Forest Office in Bara, which then transferred them to PNP. 

From there, the kittens were taken to National Trust for Nature Conservation, Biodiversity Conservation Centre in Chitwan, but only one of them survived. The good news is that the other cat will soon be released into the wild. 

This, however is proof of a chronic lack of awareness about small cat species and proper rescue centres that could provide optimum care and safely rehabilitate them in the wild. 

Another similar case is from April 2021 when a fishing cat was trapped in Gurusinghe in Kapilvastu. The locals had set up the snares to capture a wild boar, but it caught the cat instead. Fortunately, it was safely rescued and released into the wild.

These endangered cats face threats in Nepal’s densely populated Tarai either because of unplanned infrastructure, or traps laid by animal poachers. Most incidents go unnoticed due to limited knowledge about rare species of cats. 

As its name suggests, fish make up a large part of the cat’s diet, but they also prey on smaller animals and insects harmful to agriculture. But lack of awareness means farmers and fishermen consider them a nuisance and often kill them. 

Globally, over 90% of fishing cats’ potential range lies outside the protected areas. In Nepal as well, around 70% of its potential habitat in Tarai is outside national parks, adding to its anthropogenic threats. Even within their native habitat, the cats are much less well studied than their charismatic cousins, the tiger and leopard.

To ensure the long-term survival of fishing cats and other small cats, we need to remove the threats to their existence by raising awareness about the species, their ecology and behaviour. This might deter people from randomly picking the kittens up from the farmland forest. Similarly, drivers should be mindful not to over-speed to prevent road kill. More importantly, we need to discourage bushmeat. 

Fishing cats are integral to the ecosystem, and the only way to help them thrive in the wild for future generations is to educate and involve the local communities in their conservation.


Rama Mishra is a PhD Candidate at the University of Antwerp, Belgium, and is involved in the Terai Fishing Cat Project, Nepal.

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