A Voice For The Wild Cats of the World
by Wanda Angermeyer
November 11’th is Remembrance Day in Canada and on that day we take a moment from our busy lives to honor the courageous men and women who have fallen protecting the rights and freedoms that we enjoy as Canadian citizens.
As I pause to reflect on the ultimate sacrifice these people made, it makes me think of the finality of death, especially when numerous deaths could mean the extinction of a species. When one thinks of extinct cat species most of us automatically think of the prehistoric saber-toothed cats. More recently extinct cat species include two lion sub-species (Cape & Barbary) and three tiger sub-species (Bali, Caspian & Javan). The Javan Tiger was only listed as extinct as recently as 1972!
In an effort to try to spotlight all of the world’s small wild cat species from time to time on our blog, the ISEC directors each have a list of 7 or more species to focus on. My list includes a couple of species listed as “least concern” and a few that are listed as “vulnerable” or “near threatened” on the IUCN Red List. I also have one species that was upgraded from “vulnerable” to “endangered” in 2008; the Fishing Cat (Prionailurus viverrinus).
The Fishing Cat, once locally common in some areas of eastern India and Bangladesh, has become increasingly difficult to locate throughout their range. The scarcity of recent records suggests that over the past decade, they have undergone a serious and significant population decline. Even in protected wetlands and former Fishing Cat study areas, researchers have been unable to document their presence.
Wetland destruction is the primary threat facing this species, as over 50% of Asian wetlands are under threat and disappearing. Other threats include pollution, hunting and indiscriminate trapping, snaring and poisoning are also taking a toll. A more recently recognized threat was identified in an ABC news report from April 24, 2012 which stated that Thailand shrimp farming is threatening the Fishing Cat. Biologist Namfon Cutter has been conducting research on this species for eight years and claims that the farms threaten the cats in two ways. First through the loss of habitat and also when local villagers kill the cats for preying on their livestock as an alternate food source. Unfortunately it is our consumption of shrimp here in North America that drives the Thailand shrimp farms economy.
It seems like a bleak and tragic future for these amazing little swimming cats but there is some good news. Working with government officials, researchers have had the Fishing Cat made part of the provincial natural resources protection policy, and an extensive public awareness conservation campaign is underway. There has also been some success with captive reproduction of this species. Some of the institutions that celebrated Fishing Cat births this year were the Newquay Zoo in the UK, the National Zoo in Washington and Curraghs Wildlife Park.
Perhaps in the future we will see captive bred Fishing Cats released back in to their natural habitat. For now, I intend to do my part by making an informed decision when purchasing frozen shrimp and checking the country of origin on the package. Hopefully we do not have to ”Paws” to Remember the Fishing Cat as an extinct species in the future.
(Don’t forget to go to our web site for more information on Fishing Cats and other small wild cats.)
Photos of the kittens born at the National Zoo in May of 2012.
Photographer and ISEC Canada member Ben Williams in the United Kingdom has sent us more beautiful felines. This time he’s been visiting the fishing cats in Newquay Zoo. Don’t you just love the looks on these faces?
Read more about these unusual members of the wild cat family on our Fishing Cat fact sheet.
The Fishing Cat Prionailurus viverrinus has an apparently broad but discontinuous distribution in Asia. It is classified as an endangered species by the IUCN Red List because of severe population declines throughout much of its range over the last decade. An appalling lack of reliable evidence for its occurrence within the presumed range has become apparent.
This cat is primarily found in the Terai region of the Himalayan foothills in Nepal and northeastern India. It appears to occur all over Sri Lanka, and is considered widespread and locally common in Bangladesh. Camera trap studies and sign surveys have confirmed the presence of Fishing Cats in two coastal areas of Thailand, no evidence of the species was found in two wildlife sanctuaries. Their presence is not confirmed by hard facts in Laos, and no sign of them was found in Vietnam during a survey conducted by wildlife officers. However, the officers admitted problems with species identification.
The Fishing Cat is often not recognized as a Chinese species. In 1986, it was reported to have probably disappeared from the western border regions of China. One record from Taiwan from 1962 is now considered to be erroneous, while two other records from Yunnan from 1996 remain unclear. The existence of a stable population in China is unlikely, but there could well be Fishing cats occasionally roaming Into Guangxi or Yunnan near the Vietnam border.
The greatest threat to the Fishing Cat across its range is destruction of wetlands and mangrove habitats through settlement, conversion to agriculture and aquaculture, excessive hunting, and wood-cutting. The Fishing Cat may also be threatened by pollution of rivers through agriculture or waste water from fish farms. The depletion of fish stocks from over-fishing is prevalent in many Asian wetland environments and is likely to be a significant threat. Fishing Cats are shot or poisoned because they raid poultry sheds and are believed to kill young domestic livestock. Their pelts can still be found on wildlife markets. They are also caught in fish traps or snares set for other species. On Java, remaining wild populations were suspected to suffer from genetic decline because of population fragmentation.
Current and future protection
The Fishing Cat is protected by national legislation over most of its range. Local wildlife authorities in Yunnan and Guanxi should be made aware of the possible occurrence of the species in their provinces.
Source: IUCN/CSG Cat News Special Issue Autumn 2010
Today is International World Water Day. It is held annually on 22 March as a means of focusing attention on the importance of freshwater and advocating for the sustainable management of freshwater resources.
So what does this have to do with wild cats?
Wetlands are the transition zone between land and water. Wetlands provide food, habitat and shelter for local wildlife, migratory birds and aquatic species. Wetlands also provide the most productive habitat for rodents, where they have water, abundant vegetation for cover and food. And where there are high numbers of rodents, there are small wild cats.
The inappropriately named Jungle Cat is not associated with jungles but with wetlands containing water and dense vegetation for cover, especially reed swamps and marsh. Their more common names are Swamp Cat or Reed Cat. They are sometimes associated with man-made fish ponds, reservoirs and sprinkler-irrigated landscapes. Reclamation and destruction of natural wetlands pose a more serious threat to this species.
Even wild cats from the grasslands are dependent on water sources. Wetland conservation is the key to Serval conservation. As these areas harbour high rodent densities, they form the core area of Serval home ranges. Their distribution is closely tied to water and the associated vegetation, reed beds and marshes.
Forest cats too, rely on the existence of rivers and streams. A study in Belize found higher concentrations of Ocelots in connected wildlife corridors along rivers. In habitat that has been fragmented by development, these small cats use riparian corridors for hunting, range expansion and to find mates. Natural habitat along rivers is vital to the survival of many wildlife species.
A couple of the wild cats go even farther. They hunt in the water, swim, dive and play in it.
The first cat that comes to mind is the aptly named Fishing Cat. These cats are strongly associated with wetland, and are found in a number of water habitats, including marshy thickets, mangrove swamps, and densely vegetated areas along rivers and streams. They have also been observed in degraded habitat near aquaculture ponds.
Fishing Cats are strong swimmers, and can cover long distances underwater. They have been seen wading and swimming in shallow water, hunting for a variety of aquatic prey. They often hunt for fish while fully immersed in water, and have been seen catching fish by plunging their heads under water, and flicking or scooping them out with their paws. One report describes them catching waterfowl by swimming underwater and seizing their legs from beneath.
Another water-dependent feline is the little-known Flat-headed Cat.
Filling the role of a semi-aquatic carnivore, their long, narrow jaws and pointed, backward facing teeth are adaptations to catching and holding slippery prey such as fish and frogs. These cats may well be more deserving of the name ‘fishing cat’ than the species that already has that name. Their toes are more completely webbed than those of the Fishing Cat, and they have long, narrow footpads.
In 2005, a group of primate researchers on Borneo accidently trapped a Flat-headed cat. It was released in a forested area about 10 metres away from a riverbank. When the cage door was opened, the cat walked to the riverbank, slid into the water and dived. It reappeared and swam about 25 metres to the other side of the river before walking along the bank and out of sight. It is interesting to note the cat headed to the water for safety, instead of the shelter of the trees.
In Kuala Lumpur, a kitten was kept in captivity for a month. When provided with a basin of water, the kitten immediately entered and played in it, sometimes for hours. He played with various objects placed in the water, and seized pieces of fish with his mouth from a depth of 12 cm, fully submerging his head. When his cage was washed with a hose, he would play in the stream of water. He captured live frogs placed in his cage, but completely ignored sparrows. Water pollution in the form of agricultural run-off and logging activities pose a serious threat to both of these cats through contamination of their prey. In addition, waterways are often the areas first cleared as settlement expands.
It is a myth that cats don’t like water. Many of them depend on it for their very survival.
Wild cats can’t be saved without knowing what they need to survive in their natural habitat. What kind of habitat do they use? What are their activity patterns & social organizations? Without data collected by field biologists, conservation programs can’t be put in place. To further our educational efforts, we are posting regular Monday summaries of a paper written by wild cat field biologists, which briefly outlines their findings.
No fishing cat Prionailurus viverrinus record from Laos is supported by an actual specimen or photograph. Historical reports derive only from works replete with major errors. Recent reports based only on tracks and/or villagers’ reports cannot be assessed for reliability. Of three recent field sightings, one was probably a leopard cat P. bengalensis, one was seen too poorly for identification, but one was well seen and characteristics fit the fishing cat. It was in a fast river running through degraded hill evergreen forest.
This habitat may be atypical for the species and the site may be unusually far inland: a critical review of south-east Asian distribution is needed. Typical 1990s-2000s mammal surveys in Laos were probably unsuited to detecting fishing cats. Their status in Laos will remain unclear pending a targeted survey. Further claims of this cat in Laos – indeed inland south-east Asia – require documentation of evidence for identification.
J.W Duckworth, Tony Stones, Rob Tizard, Sean Watson, James Wolstencroft
IUCN/SSC Cat Specialist Group Cat News newsletter