Fishing cat : Largest Prionailurus

Fishing Cat (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Found in South and Southeast Asia, Fishing Cat (Prionailurus viverrinus), a medium-sized wild cat was classified as Endangered in 2008 by the IUCN as it is concentrated primarily in wetland habitats, which are increasingly being settled, degraded and converted. The population of this handsome cat has declined severely throughout much of its Asian range especially in the first decade of present century.

Part of the fishing cat’s scientific name, viverrinus, comes from the taxonomic family Viverridae. Like the fishing cat, civets and other members of this group have long bodies and short legs, and many have stripes or spots along the body, and banded tails.

Largest of the Prionailurus

Though the Fishing cats are medium-sized wild cats, but they are still the largest of the Prionailurus. About twice the size of domestic cats, they have a deep-chested, stocky and muscular body, a big, broad head and a short tail. Face is spotted and elongated with a distinctly flat nose. The short, coarse fur is olive-grey and tinged with brown, elongated dark brown spots arranged in longitudinal streaks running along the length of the body. There are six to eight dark lines running from the forehead to the neck and the underside is whitish with longer fur and is often overlaid with spots. Their eyes have greenish irises and the rather short and rounded ears are set far back on the head. Back of the ears are black with central white spot. There are pairs of dark stripes around the throat, and a number of black rings on the tail.

Legs are short with forelimbs having two distinct elbow bars. Their front feet are less completely webbed compared to those of the leopard cats and claw tips protrude from their sheaths even when retracted, leaving a signature track imprint. Webbed feet are characteristic of the fishing cat, but the webbing beneath the toes is not much more developed than that of a bobcat.

Head-to-body length ranges from 57–78 cm, with a short tail of 20–30 cm, which is one half to one third the length of the rest of the animal. The tail is relatively thick and has a series of incomplete rings with a black tip. They weigh from 5–16 kg.

Fishing cats spend considerable amount of their time in water as the fish is their primary food. To counter the effect of water and the cold they have one remarkable feature — layered structure of their fur — a crucial adaptation to life in water. Next to the skin they have a layer of very dense short hairs, which acts as a barrier between water and the skin. Like snug-fitting thermal underwear, this coat helps the fishing cat in keeping warm and dry even during chilly fishing expeditions. Another layer of long guard hairs sprout up through the first coat and gives the cat its pattern and glossy sheen.

Distribution and habitat

Fishing cats are largely but discontinuously scattered in Asia, and occur primarily in the Terai (a belt of marshy jungle) region of the Himalayan foothills in India and Nepal, in eastern India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. In Pakistan, the only known population was in the Indus river valley, but there are no recent records to confirm it still occurs. No confirmed records are available from Peninsular Malaysia and Vietnam. Java constitutes the eastern limit of their range, but already in the 1990s they were scarce and apparently restricted to tidal forests with sandy or muddy shores, abandoned mangrove plantation areas with fishponds and older mangrove stands.

A single fishing cat was recorded on the camera in March 2003 in Kulen Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary in northern Cambodia. In January 2008, they were sighted in Botum-Sakor National Park in southwest Cambodia. Smaller populations have also been recorded from Thailand. These cats are so secretive that they have acquired the distinction of being the least detected cats with altogether six photos obtained in Kaeng Krachan National Park, Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park and Thale Noi Non- hunting Area. There are no confirmed records from Laos.

Even in India the cat has been eradicated from many parts of the country in recent years. For example Bharatpur region in western India and the southern Western Ghats, a mountain range that runs almost parallel to the western coast of Indian peninsula. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is one of the eight “hottest hotspots” of biological diversity in the world. These places were used to be the home of fishing cats. In Sri Lanka it is found apparently all over the island. It has been sighted even on waterways in degraded habitats near the capital city of Colombo.

Fishing cats are typically found along rivers, mangrove swamps, streams, marshy areas, tidal creeks, oxbow lakes and reed beds. They are well adapted to such habitats as they are skilled swimmer. They are scarcer around smaller, fast-moving watercourses. Most available records are from lowland areas. Although they are extensively distributed through an array of habitat types including both tropical dry and evergreen forest, their occurrence tends to be highly localized. They are supposedly found at elevations up to 5,000 ft (1,500 m) in the Indian Himalayas.

Strong swimmer

Solitary by nature, fishing cats belie the belief that cats do not like water. In fact they are quite strong swimmers and are very much at home in the water and can swim long distances, even under water. According to one report they have been observed catching waterfowl by swimming underwater and seizing their legs from beneath. Believed to be primarily nocturnal they hunt along the edges of watercourses, grabbing prey from the water and sometimes dive in to catch fish further from the banks. True to their name fish constitute major portion of their diet. This has also been confirmed in a study of scats conducted in Keoladeo National Park (India). It was found that 76 per cent of their food was fish, with the remainder consisting of small rodents, birds and insects. Interestingly, grass was present in the diet in all months except August, during the monsoon season. Reptiles including snakes, molluscs, amphibians and carrion of domestic cattle supplement their diet. They are capable of taking large mammal prey, including small chital (Axis axis) fawn and have also been observed scavenging livestock carcasses and tiger kills.

The only radio-telemetry study took place in Nepal’s Chitwan National Park in the early 1990s revealed that fishing cats were active only at night and spent most of their time in dense grassland, sometimes away from water. Male cats have home range of 16 to 22 square km, while females have been reported to range over areas of 4 to 6 sq km. Adults have been observed making a “chuckling” sound and likely have other calls similar to those of domestic cats.

Fishing cats mark their territories by leaving scats on prominent places, scent marking by urine spraying, chin-rubbing, neck-rubbing, cheek and head rubbing. They also sharpen their claws and display flehmen, behavior performed by a wide range of mammals including ungulates and felids. While performing this animal curls back its upper lips exposing its front teeth, inhales with the nostrils usually closed and then often holds this position for several seconds. It may be performed over a site or substance of particular interest to the animal (e.g. urine or faeces) or may be performed with the neck stretched and the head held high in the air. Inhaling in this fashion facilitates the transfer of pheromones and other scents into the vomeronasal organ located above the roof of the mouth via a duct which exits just behind the front teeth.

Reproduction and development

These cats are said to have characteristic mating call, but they are not described. They are assumed to be polyestrous (ovulating more than once a year) year round and may mate at any time of the year, although most commonly between January and February. Females construct dens in dense shrubbery, thicket of reeds, hollow trees, in rocky crevices or in any other secluded locations. Two to three blind kittens, each weighing around 170 g are born after a gestation period of 63–70 days. Their eyes are opened after 15 to 17 days and they are able to actively move around by the age of one month. They begin to play in water and to take solid food at about two months, but are not fully weaned for six months. They reach adult body size at around eight to nine months and acquire adult canine teeth when they are eleven months old. Sexual maturity is attained at fifteen months. They live up to twelve years in captivity. According to an unverified fact, in the wild adult males may help with the care and supervision of young.

In the wild identification of fishing cat is difficult, due to their resemblance to larger geographical size variations of Leopard Cat (Prionailurus bengalensis). Juveniles of the two species look very similar.

Threats

There is concern about the species status in Southeast Asia where it is very infrequently encountered and believed to be declining. There seems to have been an acute decline in the fishing cat population throughout much of its Asian range in the first decade of the 21st century. While this period has seen a great increase in research effort, relatively few records of fishing cats have been obtained. The reason for decline in their numbers is their dependence on wetlands that are more and more being settled and converted for agricultural use and being polluted. According to an estimate over 45 per cent of protected wetlands and 94 per cent of globally significant wetlands in Southeast Asia are considered threatened.

Over-exploitation of local fish stocks by humans, excessive hunting and wood-cutting are other major reasons. In addition, clearance of coastal mangroves over the past decade has been rapid. Due to increasing human pressure the cat is believed to be extirpated in Afghanistan, it may already be gone from Malaysia and China, and it has become rare throughout its distribution range. A decline of at least 50 per cent is suspected over the past 18 years (from the year 2014), and if habitat protection efforts are not intensified, a future decline of similar magnitude over the next 18 years is projected (IUCN Cats Red List Workshop 2007). In Thailand, recent research aimed at studying the cats in wetland habitat have failed to find any animal in recent years. There are very few records from camera trapping in Cambodia, although there are a sizeable number of confiscated live captive animals there.

Conservation

Fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus) is part of the CITES Appendix II, and is protected by national legislation over most of its range. Killing is banned in India, Bangladesh, China, Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Hunting regulations apply in Lao PDR. In Vietnam and Bhutan, the species is not protected outside protected areas.

The presence of cat is confirmed in protected areas including the Sundarbans (both in India and Bangladesh), Corbett, Dudwha, and Kaziranga national parks in India, Chitwan National Park in Nepal (IUCN Cats Red List workshop 2007), Khao Sam Roi Yot and Thale Noi (Thailand), Botum-Sakor (Cambodia) and Ujung Kulon and Pulau Dua (Java, Indonesia).

In some countries within their range, Prionailurus viverrinus are considered a food item, and are also persecuted for taking domestic stock. According to the account given by various poachers in Cambodia fishing cats are easily hunted for food. Evidences of widespread hunting in the form of noose snares are commonly encountered in the protected areas. In Thailand, a long-term study found 9 out of their 17 radio-collared cats had disappeared or been killed by poachers.

On the island of Java they are hunted and caught in fish traps; their prime mangrove habitat now covers less than 11 per cent of the original area. Pollution by pesticide run-off from rice fields threatens these wetland predators who may accumulate toxins from their prey species. Conservation of the species depends on ample protection of remaining wild wetlands in Asia, and prevention of indiscriminate snaring, trapping and poisoning. Fortunately, the researchers, working with government officials, have had the fishing cat made part of the provincial natural resource protection policy. An extensive public awareness conservation campaign is also underway.

Captive breeding programmes of fishing cats have been established by the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria. All the fishing cats kept in zoos around the world are listed in the International Studbook of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Legends and local names

At one time, missionaries and local people mistakenly reported this feline as a ‘kidnapper’, snatching infants from their cradles while they were sleeping.

In Sri Lanka, it is known as Handoon Deeva. This name and Kola Diviya are used by locals to also refer to the rusty-spotted cat (Prionailurus rubiginosus), another little-known small cat of Sri Lanka. As both species are elusive and nocturnal, it is usually uncertain which one is referred to by either of these names.

In West Bengal, an Indian state, fishing cats are known as baghrol or maachbagha. In Bengali language, spoken in the state, maach stands for fish and Bagh means tiger. The cat is also the state animal of W. Bengal. In Garhwal Himalaya (India) it is called Chaurya Bagh.

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