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.

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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.

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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.

 

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Field Trip with a Twist

We’ve  just returned from an extra special field trip – not only could all our team make it out to PKWS to check camera-traps and conduct workshops with communities, but we were joined by 2 volunteers:  seasoned tracker extraordinaire Abel Ferrer from Spain and Biology graduate Alba Maya all the way from Mexico!

They joined  our Community and Research teams to deliver training to PKWS  rangers on tracking using materials developed by Vanessa, supplemented by existing materials from Wildlife Alliance:

Excerpt from the Khmer translation of the tracking training document

Footprint identification document: Wildlife Alliance

Training PKWS rangers

This was just a small part of the 2 days’ training our team conducted, which opened with a plenary for rangers to share their views, experience  and perceptions of wildlife within their patrol area. This allowed for insight into rangers’ knowledge, passion and motivation for the job.

Day 1: Theory

We also screened photo and video captures from our camera-traps- to enable greater understanding of our scope of work- and invited comments from rangers.

The team facilitated interactive mapping of the area, with rangers contributing local names of streams, plus indicating where and how often they patrol, what they see at each location etc – these insights will inform future camera-trap placements.

Also on the agenda was discussion of a wildlife data collection system, including implementation of a user-friendly system to train on SMART (Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool) in future.

By the end of the day, we had jointly identified key sites to visit on Day 2.

Day 2: Practice

A group of 12, we set out on boats to check out the sites and replace a camera-trap at a since discovered good site for Fishing Cat.

Vanessa demonstrates camera-trap operation

Along the way, we talked wildlife in the area and trained rangers in setting up camera-traps.

Sothearen explains camera trap set-up

Our hope is that this immersive engagement can form the basis of future collaboration and knowledge-sharing with PKWS rangers.

Most exciting of all, together we searched for a spot to deploy a new camera-trap.

The sign of a good day: new camera-trap set and ready to go!

This is just the first step – on upcoming field trips we aim to deepen this knowledge base, build capacity and contribute resources to make the work of rangers in the area more impactful and gather more detailed data about wildlife in the area- watch this space!

We would like to thank our donor Panthera for their continued support in this endeavour.

 

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Looking back on 2017

The Cambodian Fishing Cat Project is 1 year old! Our first year was eventful and exciting for the Fishing Cat team! We caught more Fishing Cats (and other species!) on camera, kept our ears to the ground for new data on threats, asked communities the right questions, braved the hardcore mangrove conditions and forged new relationships and initiatives to improve biodiversity.

Here’s our Round up of February 2017- February 2018:

Caught on camera

Since February 2017, we have deployed camera-traps at over 50 sites within PKWS and the adjoining Ramsar site Koh Kapik and Associated Islets, and Botum Sakor National Park.

Fishing Cat

In the five months from August 2017 to January 2018 alone, we obtained 17 more Fishing Cat records at one new area of Koh Kapik island and four other areas where they were previously recorded, on a total of seven cameras.

Some of the photos and videos were of sufficient quality to be added to individual identification analyses. The Fishing Cat Working Group agree that one of the photos possibly shows a young Fishing Cat, which supports our initial hypothesis that there is a breeding population in Koh Kapik island.

Juvenile Fishing Cat , as tentatively confirmed by The Fishing Cat Working Group

Perhaps even more excitingly, diurnal Fishing Cat activity was recorded at sites regularly visited by people, suggesting low levels of disturbance and threat within the mangroves. Check out these videos:

Fishing Cat early morning stroll

A Fishing Cat takes an early morning stroll past our cameras down to the water’s edge. Although the spot is popular with otters, macaques and civets, this is the first Fishing Cat capture since this camera was placed.

Fishing Cat early morning stroll Pt 2

After walking off-camera, this Fishing Cat completes its walk back towards the trees. Perhaps the cat paused to do a quick spot of fishing in those few intervening minutes?

Other species

Endangered Hairy-nosed Otter and Large-spotted Civet

One suspected record of Hairy-nosed Otter obtained in early 2017 was corroborated by the IUCN Otter Specialist Group.

We also obtained records of Large-spotted Civet.

We will continue to focus on these two species and include them in our training, awareness and threat prevention activities.

New Data on Threats to the Fishing Cat

Countrywide

Over the course of the year, we were made aware of potential threats:

  • Communities (including floating villages on the Tonle Sap Lake, Siem Reap Province and within Ream National Park, Sihanoukville) keeping “Fishing Cats” in cages, intended to attract tourists and/or sell for meat

  • Sale of wild meat, especially along major roads leaving capital Phnom Penh, which vendors described to customers as “Fishing Cat.”

In all cases, the cats transpired as the less rare Leopard Cat but such incidents may drive demand for Fishing Cat.

Peam Krasop Wildlife Sanctuary (PKWS)

Interviews with villagers early in 2017 suggested that Fishing Cats which had raided and damaged fishing nets had been targeted in retaliatory killings. Later interviews indicate a change for the better: villagers no longer perceive fishing cats as a threat to their livelihoods, and showed increased awareness of their importance after we provided information and materials.

It has come to our attention that harvest of crabs and shellfish might not be sustainable in the long-term and do not provide sufficient income for some households, in addition to scarce access to drinking water, which can drive illegal activities such as cutting trees and snaring.

To address this, we will strive to facilitate access to fresh water as well as direct, higher value chains for mangrove products, including crabs, shellfish, shrimp, squid and honey from rafter beekeeping while connecting initiatives to conservation agreements which set lower harvesting quotas and reduce illegal activities.

Community engagement

We continued learning from and listening to communities throughout the year but the highlight has to be sharing our findings with villagers! In January 2018, we held an exhibition of photos of Fishing Cats, as well as people, with those featured encouraged to take photos home, with the first to claim them receiving branded Project refillable water bottles as a gift.

Later we held a screening of camera-trap videos featuring our activities, and different species captured, with project facilitators sharing insights on their natural history. We also screened “Cambodia’s Forgotten Wildlife,” a film by Cambodian wildlife photographer Senglim SUY focused on raising awareness of the importance of Cambodian wildlife.

Responses were positive at both villages but the community team reports perceiving a more active interest and participation at Koh Kapik village than at Koh Sralao village.

Community officers had a one to one interview with PKWS director, which indicated his interest in the Project providing training to rangers on species identification and natural history, species monitoring and use of technologies such as SMART. He also detailed their budget constrains and suggested possibilities for financial support of their activities, which we will follow up on into 2018.

Mangrove adventures

Every field trip has its difficulties, but the salinity, humidity and ever-changing tides in mangroves proved to be tough on us and our cameras!

In June, we were fortunate to be joined by German filmmaker Ryan Anderson who tracked our movements through the mangroves with interest, and was a great sport when the boat he was in got stuck in a creek at low tide, taking the opportunity to admire beauty and stillness of the scene. We are delighted with the results of his hard work, which you can see on our YouTube channel.

Introducing the Kla Trey | Cambodian Fishing Cat Project

Meet team Kla Trey- we study the Fishing Cat, a wild cat species which faces “high risk of extinction throughout its range.” We push deep into remote areas of mangrove in Peam Krasop Wildlife Sanctuary (PKWS), southwest Cambodia which are virtually unexplored by science to further survey what could be one of the last strongholds for Fishing Cat in Southeast Asia.

 

The day after Ryan left, one of our Research Assistants Sarady got a huge surprise: seeing a Fishing Cat in broad daylight! Seeing wild cats is always unexpected – the nocturnal and rare Fishing Cat is no exception! Sarady was quick on his feet and snapped this photo on his phone.

In October 2017, we were joined in the field by a TV crew from Channel News Asia who were visiting our new collaborators, 4 Rivers Floating Lodge for lifestyle series on Glamping, In Pursuit of Magic.