Swimming probably isn’t the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of cats, but for the fishing cat, its second nature. Just as the name suggests, the Fishing cats’ main prey is fish, and they are perfectly adapted to catch them.
Part of the charismatic Felidae family of big cats, DNA studies have revealed that Fishing cats are part of the Leopard Cat lineage, diverging away from the rest of the species around 6 million years ago, with its closest relatives the other medium sized, stocky cats like the Pallas Cat and Flat Headed Cat. Found throughout Asia and Southeast Asia, the Fishing Cat has a naturally patchy distribution as it tends to stick to swamps and wetlands, with no real evidence of how it travels between these habitats. Fishing Cats are a particular headache for researchers, as they are rarely seen on camera trapping surveys and finding evidence of them in the wild appears to be next to impossible. So much so that they have been considered extinct in many regions, like Cambodia, only for them to pop up fleetingly on trail cameras, then never seen again for many years. When a supposed sighting does occur, it often turns out to be the similar looking leopard cat and the range has to be redrawn again. We do know that they can be found throughout the mangrove and swamp regions of India, into the Nepalese highlands and across Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand and Malaysia, although it is hard to know exactly where they are or how many there are at any one time. This is a massive challenge for conservationists; how can you conserve something when you don’t know where it is, or how it behaves?
Making a splash: life of the water loving cats
It’s in the name: Fishing Cats LOVE fish. Scat collected across India shows that up to 75% of their diet is made up of fish, but they’re not just pescatarians; remains of insects, small rodents, reptiles, birds and amphibians have been found too. They have also been known to take domestic animals like ducks and chickens, which can get them into trouble with local farmers looking to protect their livestock.
It should come as no surprise that Fishing Cats are powerful swimmers, since they live and hunt in wetlands and swamps, plunging into the water after fish and sometimes swimming vast distances in pursuit of prey. Recent studies by scientists in Chilika lagoon, Kolkata, have revealed new insights into the hunting behaviours of this elusive cat. Biologists recruited local fisherman into their studies, training them to install trail cameras and recognise the individual cats prowling the same waterways the fisherman hunted. As the cats are predominantly nocturnal and vey elusive, camera trapping is the best way to catch their activity. After analysing almost 200 videos, the strategies of Fishing Cats came to light. When in deep water, the cats will employ a patient ‘sit and wait’ tactic, conserving energy and only jumping when the timing was exactly right. In shallower waters, the cats were much more active, leaping around and at times slapping the water with their paws to flush out the fish. They also put the patience of even the most dedicated fisherman to shame, crouched for long periods of time at the water’s edge, waiting for a fish to swim past. They are also recorded using floating vegetation as cover, pouncing only when they are almost certain to land their catch. There are even reports that they can catch waterfowl by swimming silently underneath them and seizing their legs.
Contrary to what you might expect, Fishing Cats don’t have especially webbed paws given their aquatic lifestyles, although the short webbing they do have does help them walk through their muddy wetland homes. Their tails are stubby and help the cat swim, acting as a kind of rudder to propel them through the water. In addition, their fur is specially adapted to a lifetime of getting soaked; there are two layers, one short and dense to keep the skin warm and the second made up of longer ‘guard’ hairs to create the dappled patterning of the cat’s coat, perfect for camouflage. When it is determined they are present in an area, it is easy to track them thanks to their signature track imprint; their claw tips protrude from their sheaths even when the claws are retracted.
Fishing for a brighter future: threats facing Fishing Cats
The Fishing Cat is listed as vulnerable by the IUCN, in large part due to their reliance on wetlands and mangroves, which are rapidly shrinking, the patches left facing significant degradation through intensive seafood farming and coastal development. 45% of protected wetlands and 94% of globally significant wetlands are threatened by the invasion of human activity, from large scale, intensive agriculture, overfishing, pollution and the steady creep of human settlements into these essential habitats, home to the Fishing cats and many others.
Throughout its range in India, much of the cat’s habitat of swampy marshlands is considered ‘wastelands’ under Indian government policy, and it is likely that these areas will see increasing levels of urbanisation as cities expand to accommodate growing populations. This puts the Fishing Cat, with its already patchy distribution, even more at risk. As habitats become more fragmented by human developments, the cats’ lives become much riskier, as they increasingly come into contact with humans when travelling from one wetland to another. They may be tempted to snaffle a chicken or two, leading them into direct conflict with farmers, who often retaliate by shooting, trapping or poisoning the cats, although rarely is this a large-scale targeted eradication effort; more the actions of individual frustrated farmers who happened to see a cat carrying off their livestock. In some areas such as Nepal, up to 40% of fish farmers reported seeing Fishing Cats stealing from their fishponds, another area of human wildlife conflict. Having to travel between fragmented habitats means Fishing Cats are often killed on roads, especially as urban areas are growing, and more transport links are needed to connect them.
Although it is tricky to find Fishing Cats, most conservationists are in agreement that the species are still in decline across their range, especially in Southeast Asia, where there have been no sightings in some regions since 2000.
There’s no denying that the future of the Fishing Cat doesn’t look so rosy at the moment, tied as they are to the significantly battered wetlands and mangroves. But there is still hope for these unique and rare cats.
The Fishing Cat has legal protection across much of its range, listed under CITES Appendix II and local laws prohibiting hunting and any other kind of exploitation. Through years of camera trapping there is evidence that the species inhabits many protected wetlands and mangrove parks where intensive conservation protocols are in place.
However, the survival of this species depends on more protection of Asian wetlands and preventing retaliation for livestock predation. This is where The Fishing Cat Conservation Alliance steps in.
This team is made up of conservationists, researchers and cat lovers who aim to protect the cats through saving their ecosystems and improving relationships with locals. They have a range of projects (you can check out at https://fishingcat.org/partner-projects/) working in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Cambodia and Java. Many of the NGOs the Alliance is partnered with are working to slow the loss of wetlands and mangroves in collaboration with local farmers and fisherman, often supporting these people to develop alternative livelihoods that allow them to earn money without the degradation of the ecosystems around them. Local charities have also worked to set up Fishing Cat crossing areas on major roads, with great outcomes; in these areas, no further road kills have been recorded.
Several zoos, including San Francisco, Denver, Liepzig and Newquay, have captive populations of Fishing Cats as an insurance population.
One of these projects, the Urban Fishing Cat Project, is particularly exciting, as it revealed through radio collar surveys that cats were travelling into urban areas and are apparently able to adapt to them, hunting from ornamental ponds and moving through these busy areas with relatively little incidence. This is a positive sign that these cats are more unique and resilient than we could have guessed. You can check out this amazing project and support their work at https://fishingcats.lk.
With support and protection, the future can go swimmingly for these water cats.
Ganguly, D. and Tiasa, A. (2020) ‘How Fishing Cats Prionailurus viverrinus fish: describing a felid’s strategy to hunt aquatic prey.’
Scientists uncover the secret to fishing cats’ hunting success
Kolipaka, S.S. Srivastava, D.P. Prasad, S. and Rust, A.R. (2019) ‘Fishing cat conservation in human-dominated landscapes in West Bengal, India.’ Academia.
Mishra, R. Gautam, B Kaspal, P. and Shah, S.K. (2021) ‘Population status and threats to fishing cat in Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve, Eastern Nepal.’ Nepalese Journal of Zoology.
Palei, H.S. Das, U.P. and Debata, S. (2018) ‘The vulnerable fishing cat in Odisha, eastern India: status and conservation implications.’ Zoology and Ecology
Peterson, W.J. Savini, T. Chutipong, W. Kamjing, A. Phosri, K. Tantipisanuh, N. and Ngoprasert, D. (2022) ‘Predicted Pleistocene-Holocene range and connectivity declines of the vulnerable fishing cat and insights for current conservation.’ Journal of Biogeography.
Rana D. Samad, I. and Rastogi, S. (2022) ‘To a charismatic rescue: designing a blueprint to steer Fishing Cat conservation for safeguarding Indian wetlands.’ Journal for Nature Conservation.