Monthly Wild Cat News
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.
Recently I had the privelege of spending a full day working with the small wild cats of Port Lympne Wild Animal Park, in the United Kingdom. The park itself is well known for its extensive array of animals and one of the greatest selection of small cats in Western Europe. Needless to say my experience did not disappoint.
One of the first things I learned upon arrival was that the park is heavily involved with captive breed and release programmes, contributing to various wild populations around the world, therefore assisting species whose numbers are dwindling. The emphasis was strongly focused towards the welfare of the animals rather than just making profit. This is an example I wish many more zoos would follow.
Over the course of the day I had the opportunity to feed margays, fishing cats, ocelots and Indian desert cats to mention a few. Preparing “feeds” is, in itself, a fairly mammoth task which took up some part of the day and other duties included cleaning the enclosures and conducting general maintenance of the living areas. Headkeeper Neville Buck and I began constructing a new, more insulated roof for the den of a resident pair of margays – England in the winter is not ideal for warm weather cats, but every effort is made to keep each animal comfortable and healthy.
All in all, I feel my Port Lympne experience was infact quite eye-opening. As somebody who has studied both big and small cats for a while, it was a pleasure to witness several species in the flesh for the first time. Seeing a picture in a book and actually being up close looking at them face to face are two very different things. Some may be smaller or bigger than you might imagine. Though one thing is for sure – all are twice as beautiful than any photo could ever portray.
About the author: ISEC Canada member Brad Parsk is a conservationist and wild cat enthusiast from the U.K. He has assisted in projects throughout Europe and North America preserving threatened species and their habitats.
See more photos of the small wild cats at Port Lympne from ISEC member Ben Williams:
Earlier this month our blog featured some adorable baby fishing cat photos. The post was a real hit with our readers, and we received an intriguing comment on it:
What will become these baby fishing cats when they’re adults ? Will they be reintroduced in their natural habitat or will they have to live in captivity their whole lives ?
This is a question we are often asked, particularly when we feature pictures wild cats in zoos, and it gives us a chance to clarify a few things. Thank you David, for asking.
Consider the situation in the Fishing Cats’ native habitat.
These cats are widely distributed but concentrated in wetland habitats, which are increasingly being settled, degraded and converted. Over 94% of globally significant wetlands in Southeast Asia are considered threatened by human settlement, draining for agriculture, pollution, wood-cutting and fishing. In addition, clearance of coastal mangroves over the past decade has been rapid. The depletion of fish stocks from over-fishing is prevalent and is likely to be a significant threat.
Indiscriminate trapping, snaring and poisoning are also taking a toll. Fishing Cats are considered a food item in many areas of their range, and are also persecuted for taking domestic stock. They can often be seen for sale in street markets. The scarcity of recent records throughout their range suggests that over the past decade, they have undergone a serious and significant population decline. In 2008, they were moved from Vulnerable Status to Endangered.
Would cats living in zoos, with meals brought to them on a regular basis, warm shelter and protection from predators want to be put into a world like this?
Before any reintroduction program can happen, four elements must be firmly in place:
None of these elements are in place for the Fishing Cats. We would all like to see wild animals living where they belong, but the unfortunate truth is that the wild is rapidly disappearing. For the Fishing Cats, wetlands are being drained at so rapid a pace the cats are on an accelerated slide towards extinction. Like the tiger, their only hope of survival may be the zoo population.
If we don’t like that answer, it’s up to all of us to reverse the trend – for wild cats and the rest of the world’s wildlife.
One of the things I find most fascinating about cats is that, while all members of the family have the same basic platform, you can see adaptations and variations among the individual species. To illustrate this, let’s compare the serval and the fishing cat.
Both are roughly the same size–the serval weighs between 7 and 18 Kg; the fishing cat, 5 to 16 Kg. They’re both around 60 cm long. They can easily be described as “medium sized cats,” but they clearly have different body types. They are also both nocturnal hunters.
The serval is a slender cat, with long legs and big ears. The ears allow them to hear their prey in the grasslands of Africa. The ears can rotate independent of each other.
Relative to body size, they have the longest legs of any species of cat. These legs allow them to reach down in burrows after rodents (as cat ambassador Cleo demonstrates). However, what servals most put their legs to use for is jumping. They can leap up to three-and-a-half meters in the air. Some have even pulled birds out of the sky.
To look at a fishing cat next to a serval, you’d see a stockier cat, with darker fur. The inner layer of their fur is dense, forming a waterproof layer.
Fishing cats are not jumpers, so they do not have the long legs. Unlike the serval (and, well, most any other cat), they are swimmers. Where the serval has a fairly short tail, the fishing cat has a long one, acting as a rudder. They have webbed feet to help move through the water. Fishing cats have semi-retractable claws (like a cheetah) that are curved like fishhooks to help, well, cat fish.
These are just a few examples of how different cats adapt to their environment. You can see many others, from the fur on the bottom of a sand cat’s foot to the mane of a lion.
This is the latest update from Namfon Cutter and the rest of the wonderful folks at the Fishing Cat Research and Conservation Project in Thailand.
Since the project was established in the Khao Sam Roi Yod site, we have captured 7 female and 10 male fishing cats using box traps and fitted them with VHF radio collars in order to study their movements over a primarily agricultural landscape in the Khao Sam Roi Yod area, Prachuap KiriKhan province, Thailand. We’ve attempted to locate all individuals two times each day.
Additionally, we collected locations more frequently during a two week period to better understand 24 hour activity patterns and use of daily resting habitat. Our eventual sample size was reduced due to the number of collared fishing cats killed or that otherwise were not able to be located at some point after collaring. We thus used:
Camera trap survey results
We set up camera traps to study fishing cat distribution,movements, behavior, and for enumeration of individuals.In a total of 541 trap nights, we have been able to identify 31 individual fishing cats, including all of the individuals that have been captured for radio collaring. Camera trapping results show that both males and females use the same areas and occasionally use the same travel routes-often during the same night. Camera trap also revealed that both male and female fishing cats scent mark, as both sexes have been found to spray camera traps that were set up.
One of the collared fishing cats data from 1 male and 4 females for which we recorded more than 800 locations for detailed movement analysis. Home range estimates of the cats analyzed were 7.3 km2 for the male and an average of 2.8 km2 for the three females. The average home range overlap of the male over female home ranges was 7.28% and 2.94% among females.
It is likely that movements encountered in this study are strongly influenced by land use patterns and the distribution of sources of freshwater and daytime resting sites. We expect that our current analysis of these patterns will inform efforts to better conserve this population.
We recently conducted an aerial survey of habitats by using a 2-seater paramotor which gave us a better perspective of habitat quality. The purpose was also to identify new possible day-time refuges for fishing cats and for potential survey in the future.
Poaching issues and strategies
To reduce poaching and retribution killing of fishing cats, we work with local residents and government officers. In mid-2010, with the support of the Kuiburi district chief, we established a district level Fishing Cat Conservation Committee. The district chief has been proactive in working against poaching and has issued formal warnings (and a threat of more serious action in the future) to individuals known to have killed fishing cats.
Fishing cats sometimes take chickens from local properties. Our goal is to provide support for local residents who have had problems with, or anticipate problems with fishing cats raiding their chickens. Starting in January 2010, we respond to all requests or reports of this type of problem by conducting camera trap surveillance of the area and providing materials and labor to reinforce chicken enclosures as part of our conflict mitigation strategy. Often these incidents are the result of raids by domestic dogs or cats but many people blame fishing cats anyway. To date, 15 chicken houses in five villages—Nongjok , Don Makham, Nongbua, KhaoDaeng, and Koke-luk have been built or reinforced.
Feral and Domestic animal control
With a lot of support from the Monitoring and Surveillance Center for Zoonotic Disease in Wildlife and Exotic Animals (MoZWE) several vets have helped us neuter dogs and cats that were either feral or pets within the community. So far we have castrated 17 domestic cats and15 domestic dogs. Two feral dogs and 2 feral cats were also neutered.
We are planning to expand our survey into another site–in the main wetland area of Khao Sam Roi Yod National Park and Thailand’s newest Ramsar Site. We have established a positive relationship with the community in this area and village leaders are enthusiastic and supportive of playing an active role in the conservation of fishing cats. The communities in this area have a sustainable resource use mentality that has evolved from protecting their primary livelihoods—fish and shrimp farming, rice cultivation.We plan to transfer approaches and lessons learned in working at the current site to this new area.
We are hopeful that as these activities expand and more people understand the rarity and ecological significance of fishing cats, we will see long-term benefits for fishing cats in the region.
For more information, see the Fishing Cat Research and Conservation Project website.
Two ambitious photojournalists are interested in doing a multimedia story on Namfon Cutter’s fishing cat project in Thailand. They are independent journalists, but have a letter of interest from National Geographic after submitting their proposal to them. Wouldn’t it be great for the little water cats to get that kind of press?
The team needs to raise funds to support their trip and have set up a page on the Kickstarter website where people can give donations to support their project. Donations can be as small as $10. Even if you don’t want to donate, you should check out their websites!
Fishing Cats Prionailurus viverrinus are one of the more unusual small cats found in Southeast Asia.
In contrast to the general rule that cats don’t like water, Fishing Cats are strongly associated with wetland areas. They are typically found in swamps and marshy areas, oxbow lakes, reed beds, tidal creeks and mangrove areas.
Their claw sheaths are incomplete, which prevents the claws from being fully retracted, and there is partial webbing between the toes. Powerful swimmers, these cats push themselves through the water with webbed hind feet. They have been observed wading and swimming in shallow water, hunting for a variety of prey, including fish, frogs, snails and crustaceans.
There appears to have been a severe decline in the Fishing Cat population throughout much of its Asian range over the last decade. Over 45% of protected wetlands and 94% of globally significant wetlands in Southeast Asia are considered threatened. Threats to wetlands include human settlement, draining for agriculture, pollution, wood-cutting and fishing. Clearance of coastal mangroves over the past decade has been rapid. The depletion of fish stocks from over-fishing is likely to be a significant threat.
Fishermen have reported they’ve killed and eaten Fishing Cats which they say had taken fish from their nets, and skins have been found in illegal trade in India for many years.
In 2002, the IUCN Red Data List classed the Fishing Cat as Vulnerable. The latest listing, evaluated in 2008, lists these small wild cats as Endangered.
In captivity, there are less than 200 Fishing Cats recorded in the International Species Information System (Aug 2010). One of the best places to see Fishing Cats in North America is the wonderful wild cat collection housed at The Cinncinnati Zoo. This video illustrates perfectly why these animals are called Fishing Cats!
Learn more about these elusive felines in the wilds of Thailand at the Fishing Cat Research & Conservation Project website.