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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.