Small cat fans have a reason to celebrate—India’s embattled, enigmatic fishing cats will receive new levels of protection thanks to the work of the Howrah area’s local government and Small Cat Conservation Alliance researcher Tiasa Adhya.
Fishing cats are a small species, with males weighing about twenty-five pounds and females about fifteen. Their pattern of stripes on their head and spots on their gray body helps camouflage them in their preferred habitat of reeds and marshes. Their semi-webbed paws have adapted to their damp habitat and, like the cat’s name suggests, fish comprise a large part of their diet. Fishing cats can scoop fish straight out of the water or dive down to catch prey with their teeth. They are classified as endangered on the IUCN Red List, with an estimated population of less than 10,000 cats worldwide. There’s still a great deal to learn about fishing cat behavior, but their diminishing numbers render this difficult.
The species once had a range that spanned that stretched over hundreds of miles. An area of their range in India’s Sundarbans region remained protected, but outside that small area land usage altered the landscape dramatically, with marshes drained in favor of more agriculturally friendly land. No fishing cats have been seen in the Kolkata region—where the wetlands have been turned into intensive aquaculture—since 2011. In the municipality of Howrah, fishing cats live in an area that is heavily populated with humans but seem to be doing relatively well.
This is due in part to Howrah’s economic reliance on reeds. It is in the best interest of both people and cats to make sure the reeds flourish. Reed cultivation has led to the cats having sufficient cover, and the geo-morphology of the region creates their favored marshy environments. The cats’ existence with people, however, is not entirely peaceful. Fishing cats are the targets of retaliatory killings as a sense of perceived revenge against their predation on fish, goats, and poultry. However, Tiasa conducted a study showing that the cats far prefer to eat fish and small rodents, making them a valuable form of pest control. They very rarely take goats or other prey raised by humans; instead, they protected human food stock by eating pests that might otherwise decimate food storage.
Tiasa also worked with local, small units of government called panchayats to increase awareness about fishing cats on a village-by-village level. All 157 panchayats agreed to create fishing cat protection groups that would both spread the word of the importance of conservation and protect cats from being killed. 3,000 posters and 50,000 brochures were made, and a short video was aired on TV detailing the importance of the fishing cat and the new punishments in place for killing one of the animals.
Social media has played a role in nabbing poachers. After five cats were recently killed, the hunters posted images of themselves posing with their catch on a social networking site. This allowed police to hunt them down and make the necessary arrests.
Perceptions of the cats are deeply engrained, and it will take time to alter them. To this end, special focus is being placed on eighteen villages that have the most contact with the cats because of locals’ work cultivating reeds. Tiasa hopes that one day the area will be declared a Biodiversity Heritage Site, run by locals. The program has been in funded in part by Small Cat Conservation Alliance, the WWF, and the Mohammed Bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund. Should the initiatives have long-term success, Tiasa will use them throughout India to protect other endangered species. A great deal of work remains to be done, but a significant step has been taken in improving the relationship between people and fishing cats.
—Written by Elizabeth Rogers