The “Fishing Tiger” in the Kingdom of Water

The Fishing Tiger in the Kingdom of Water

The following is an imagined history of Fishing Cat in Cambodia.

Once upon a time Cambodia’s vast wetlands – covering a large part of the country- would have been ideal habitat for the water-loving Fishing Cat, known locally as “Kla Trey” or Fishing Tiger. It’s easy to imagine the Cat stalking the flooded forest around the great Tonle Sap lake and floodplains of the mighty Mekong river- not to mention extensive mangroves up and down the coast where they roam to this day.

As magnificent as these watery landscapes are, they throw up challenges when it comes to conducting scientific surveys – alongside Cambodia’s checkered history- thus species such as Fishing Cat are under-surveyed and often mistaken for their smaller Leopard Cat cousins.

Kingdom of Water

Life in Cambodia has always been intimately connected with water. The Cambodia creation myth is led by the serpent deity or Naga, protector of water. The story goes that Soma, the daughter of the Naga Raja or Naga King married Kaundinya, a Brahmin, who came from India by sea, landing on the banks of the Mekong.

Naga statue

Naga statue

Following the ceremony, the Naga Raja swallowed the waters to reveal the land of Cambodia as a wedding gift to the couple. The Cambodian people sprang from their union and thus it is said that Cambodians are “Born of the Naga”.

The epic Khmer Empire once covered a huge territory, at the heart of which sat Angkor Thom, a mega city that stretched over 1,000 sq km- the most extensive urban complex of the preindustrial world.

The success of the Khmer Empire owes a lot to the Angkorians’ ingenious water management system, dating back to the 9th century. Water was collected from the Kulen hills, stored in massive reservoirs or “barays” connected by vast series of canals used for transportation, irrigation and flood control, with surplus water carried to the Tonle Sap lake to the south.

Fishing Cat set in stone

Despite this taming of the waters – which altered the natural hydrology of the region- Fishing Cats were at home along the waterways. This bas relief on the eastern wall of Bayon Temple leads us to believe that Fishing Cats were a common enough sight to be included in carvings of everyday life.

Fishing Cat on Bayon Temple

Fishing Cat on Bayon Temple

Although not confirmed as Fishing Cat by historians or archaeological experts, we believe it speaks for itself- a cat in the water with short legs, short tail, long body.. what other cat could it be?!

Despite its high sophistication, the hydraulic engineering at Angkor “was not enough to prevent its collapse in the face of extreme environmental conditions,” posits Mary Beth Day, a paleolimnologist at the University of Cambridge.

After the demise of the Empire in the 1400s, we can suppose that habitat in Cambodia may have sustained a healthy population of Fishing Cats for a number of centuries. Perhaps disturbances and conflicts occurred between Fishing Cat and humans living along the same water courses- both were competing for the same food after all! There are no written or visual records of Fishing Cat from the era which followed- to our knowledge.

19th century: Changing habits, changing habitats

More systematic agricultural conversion of wetlands and increase in human population, together with trophy hunting throughout Indochina likely threatened Fishing Cat populations in Cambodia in modern times.

Henri de Monestrol's 1952 book, Chasses et Faune D’Indochine (Hunting and Wildlife of Indochina)

From Henri de Monestrol’s 1952 book, Chasses et Faune D’Indochine (Hunting and Wildlife of Indochina)

20th century: going hungry; going hunting

From the 1960s onwards, hardship and hunger in Cambodia’s Vietnam War and Khmer Rouge era likely increased hunting pressure on Fishing Cats as more people turned to forest resources.

Documentary Portrait Travel Human People Cambodia

21st century

Today, Cambodia is home to one of the largest and diverse freshwater fisheries in the world (So & Touch 2011); the mighty Tonle Sap lake. The flooded forest and freshwater mangroves around the Lake are ideal habitat for Fishing Cats- not to mention the abundant prey! A number of small-scale studies have been conducted but none has yielded evidence of Fishing Cat presence around the Tonle Sap.

Human population density is high in certain areas, and there is considerable pressure upon Tonle Sap fisheries. Cambodia’s wetlands cover over 30% of the country’s land area, with some putting estimates of the Cambodian population who work on seasonally inundated land as high as 80% (WWT).

Making history

In contemporary times, there was only one camera-trap record of Fishing Cat in Cambodia from 2003 (Rainey & Kong, 2010).

Single camera-trap record of Fishing Cat in Cambodia from  2003 (Rainey & Kong, 2010).

That changed in 2015 when the first targeted survey photographed Fishing Cats at two sites. This was a historic discovery which provided much needed evidence that Fishing Cat were present in the country. 

Fishing cat found in Cambodia

Pictures of the Endangered fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus) – the first in Cambodia for more than a decade – provide welcome evidence that these elusive felines still survive in some parts of the country.

This is where the Kla Trey | Cambodian Fishing Cat Project comes in!

The Project is born!

Of the two sites where Fishing Cat presence was recorded, Peam Krasop Wildlife Sanctuary (PKWS) was selected as the primary site on which to focus research and conservation efforts.

We collaborate with environmental NGOs active in the area, including BirdLife, Naturelife, Conservation International and Flora & Flauna International. Working on the ground to protect the Cardamom Rainforest Landscape are Wildllife Alliance, with whom we share data, particularly on sightings and seizure of illegally held wildlife, which is often transferred to their rescue centre Phnom Tamao for rehabilitation and possible release.

In 2016, Wildlife Alliance’s mobile environmental education unit, Kouprey Express delivered workshops to PKWS communities in partnership with the Cambodian Fishing Cat Project.

These relations mean that if evidence of Fishing Cats elsewhere in Cambodia comes to light, we are the first to know.

Fishing Cats under threat

Sadly, we were notified of the killing of a Fishing Cat in retaliation for raiding fishing nets within PWKS shortly after the 2015 CBC survey.

That’s why we conduct ongoing Natural Resource Management questionnaires; raising awareness of wildlife populations, and striving to enable livelihood diversification within fishing communities, together with all-important training of local wildlife rangers in the use of ecological and law enforcement monitoring technology, SMART.

The search for Fishing Cat continues!

We don’t have evidence of Fishing Cat outside of PKWS and Ream National Park (the secondary site where presence was detected in the CBC 2015 survey) yet – but we won’t rule out the possibility of Fishing Cat persisting elsewhere in Cambodia.

Myth-bust: All Cats Hate Water

Cats’ aversion to water is well known. Sure, they may be fascinated by it but have no interest in getting into it.

Not the Fishing Cat!

Arkive image - Fishing cat at water's edge

Wetlands specialists as they are, these felines are adapted to their watery habitats, and take a much greater interest in water – that’s where over 70% of its favourite food (yep, you guessed it, fish!) comes from (Haque and Vijayan 1993).

More on how Fishing Cats fish coming soon!

Arkive video - Fishing cat hunting
Fishing Cats are excellent swimmers, which their water-resistant double-coated fur, long stocky bodies, short ruddy-like tails and webbed feet seem well adapted to- but on closer inspection, the partial membrane between the toes are no more developed than in other wild or domestic cats.

Arkive photo - Fishing cat swimming in river

And just like your kitty at home, once wet Fishing Cats don’t like to stay that way- check out this video of the male from 2015 shaking the mangrove mud off his paws.

Fishing Cat in Peam Krasop Wildlife Sanctuary, Cambodia

Camera trap video of a male Fishing Cat (Prionailurus viverrinus) marking the ground on a small raised “beach” in the mangroves of Peam Krasop Wildlife Sanctuary, Koh Kong, south-west Cambodia. Note that the date should read 2015 not 2014.

More on Fishing Cat Habitat and Ecology here.

Cameras and Kayaks

Another successful field trip completed!

We’ve just returned from a landmark field trip with an extended team – core crew plus 3 volunteers: Canadian environmental science researchers Sally and Shauna, plus veterinarian from the Iberian Lynx Programme, Rebeca.

All aboard Team Kla Trey

All aboard Team Kla Trey

With their help, we were able to cover more ground to place camera traps, and assist community officers Sothearan and Davy to facilitate personal interviews with villagers about agricultural and fishing practices in the mangroves.

The team explored new areas with the help of naturalist Gerald Chartier, going where few kayaks had been before!

Gerald Chartier prepping the kayaks

Gerald Chartier prepping the kayaks

Camera traps were deployed at new sites where sightings were reported by local community members, and signs (like an otter latrine) point to the potential for Fishing Cat! These open areas of land are often used by Fishing Cats for marking and perhaps mating rendezvous.

Shauna placing a camera trap at a new site

Shauna placing a camera trap at a new site

New camera traps

We recently got our hands on a brand new model of camera traps, which can capture activity of Fishing Cats and other nocturnal mangrove animals at night in full colour! We can’t wait to see the first photos and videos in upcoming field trips!

New camera traps

A huge thank you

…to our donors Panthera, Mohammad bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, Wild Oasis and carnivore specialist Emilio Virgos for continuing to support our research efforts.

How can you help?

Support our new volunteers Sally & Shauna in their 10K  “Race to Save the Fishing Cat in Cambodia at Angkor Wat on Sunday 2 December. Donations will go directly to the Project- check out our crowdfunder which goes live on Friday 9 November.