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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Fishing Cat still prowl PKWS

In February 2017, supported by Panthera, the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund and Denver Zoo, we placed 26 camera-traps in key mangrove habitat within PKWS.

Now we want to share the exciting results of our survey so far:  captures confirm an extant population in PKWS!

“This is a first glimpse of the fishing cat population in PKWS,” says our Principal Investigator Vanessa Herranz Muñoz, “but our preliminary findings are very promising.”

Fishing Cats caught on camera include an individual at a new site (above) negotiating aerial mangrove roots:

Second Fishing Cat negotiating mangrove roots in Peam Krasop Wildlife Sanctuary

This camera-trap video of a Fishing Cat (Prionailurus viverrinus) was captured at a new site in the mangroves of Peam Krasop Wildlife Sanctuary, Koh Kong, south-west Cambodia. The individual cannot be identified from current captures but surveying for Fishing Cat in the area is ongoing.

and the female identified in 2015 at her old haunt (below), a raised platform next to a stream which provides much-needed dry land for marking.

Cameras record her doing just this, part of a “fascinating display of the intimate life of fishing cats in the wild.” See video below:

Female Fishing Cat licking ground in Peam Krasop Wildlife Sanctuary

This camera-trap video shows a female Fishing Cat (Prionailurus viverrinus) licking the ground on a small raised “beach” in the mangroves of Peam Krasop Wildlife Sanctuary, Koh Kong, south-west Cambodia.

Female Fishing Cat preparing to mark in Peam Krasop Wildlife Sanctuary (1 of2)

This camera-trap video (1 of 2) shows a female Fishing Cat (Prionailurus viverrinus) preparing to mark on a small raised “beach” in the mangroves of Peam Krasop Wildlife Sanctuary, Koh Kong, south-west Cambodia.

Female Fishing Cat marking in Peam Krasop Wildlife Sanctuary (2 of 2)

This camera-trap video shows a female Fishing Cat (Prionailurus viverrinus) marking on a small raised “beach” in the mangroves of Peam Krasop Wildlife Sanctuary, Koh Kong, south-west Cambodia.

“The recapture of the female fishing cat after two years is good news,” says Dr Jan F Kamler, Southeast Asia Leopard Program Coordinator for Panthera, “as it indicates snaring could not have been high in that area.”

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Our threat assessment, conducted with local communities, bears this out. Back in 2015, killings of fishing cats in PKWS in retaliation for damaging fishers’ nets was identified as a major conservation challenge, but the cats may no longer be viewed as a threat to livelihoods notes Community Officer Sothearen Thi: “People have no will to hunt or kill fishing cats because there is no perceived conflict.” What’s more, villagers welcomed measures to mitigate future human-fishing cat conflict. Vanessa sees this as a very positive sign and is hopeful that “together we can ensure that fishing cats persist in the Cambodian mangroves.” For other species photo captures see here.

Local community members show off the Fishing Cat poster which they will keep at the community for display

 

Protecting what’s precious

Globally, the feline faces a multitude of threats, from habitat destruction to active persecution, which have led to a steep decline in its numbers- suspected to be 30% or more over the last 15 years- culminating in the declaration in the latest IUCN Redlist assessment that the fishing cat “faces a high risk of extinction throughout its range.” Nowhere is that risk more acute than in Southeast Asia where it is believed to be amongst the most vulnerable of the small and medium sized cats.

Research on the species was initiated only in 2009 but already it is believed extinct in Vietnam with no confirmed records in Laos PDR and scarce information about the species in Java, Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia.

Fishing Cat range adapted from IUCN Redlist 2016 assessment

Our results follow closely on the heels of sad news from Java: a recent extensive survey targeting Fishing Cat yielded no records. “Nevertheless, fishing cats still exist across a wide range,” Dr Frédéric Launay, Director-General of the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund (MbZ) told Cat Watch, “and our focus should be on assessing population health and reducing threats elsewhere.”

In light of this, just such an assessment yielding evidence of an extant population can only be a good thing. On the other hand, our findings indicate that individuals in PKWS may be restricted to the largest islet of the protected area. Could this be another remnant population such as those in Central and South Thailand, highly localized and restricted to a small area? Only further surveying will tell.

So far as suitable (and safe) habitat in Cambodia goes, the population inhabits a protected area whose zoning- approved in 2011- is seen as an important pilot for the rest of the country.

This red marker indicates core zone

What’s more, 60% of PKWS falls within the Koh Kapik and Associated Islets Ramsar Site– where the Critically Endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper was recently recorded– which should afford the sanctuary additional protection.

PKWS population in the clear?

As leader of the 2015 survey and Project Research Consultant Ret Thaung notes, Fishing Cat numbers have declined dramatically as Asian wetland habitats rapidly disappear or are modified by human activity. Since the 1970s, industrial shrimp farms have accounted for a large part of this habitat loss in Southeast Asia. In PKWS, however, shrimp farming fizzled out in the early 2000s- today it is virtually absent, and much of the mangrove destroyed has been restored.

One of few small-scale fish farms in PKWS

Furthermore, communities report that hunting is infrequent in the area, thus Fishing Cat in PKWS may be relatively safe from the snaring crisis which is sweeping Asian forests, according to a group of scientists (including Wildlife Alliance director of science and global development Dr Thomas Gray) writing recently in Science. Dr Jan F Kamler notes that snares are “a major issue for most wildlife in Cambodia and other areas of Southeast Asia,” which, as the authors acknowledge, kill and maim indiscriminately “any individual that encounters them.”

This being the case, Fishing Cat are also vulnerable to snaring, infrequent as it might be in the area – one man informed us that a Fishing Cat was killed in a snare set for Water Monitor in late 2016 and supplied a photograph:

As in 2015, communities are highly dependent upon fisheries in PKWS but “think they don’t use illegal methods for fishing activities,” Sothearan noted following interviews with villagers.

In order to further reduce threats to Fishing Cats, Kla Trey is collaborating with the leading organization for direct protection of threatened habitat and species in the country, Wildlife Alliance. Their mobile environmental education unit conducted awareness raising workshops alongside Kla Trey staff.

After collaborating in PKWS, thanks to Wildlife Alliance, awareness to protect fishing cats will reach communities throughout Cambodia!

Posted by Cambodian Fishing Cat Project on Friday, 24 March 2017

 

We will work together closely to promote the “importance of coastal zone conservation in the Cardamom Landscape – something for which the Fishing Cat is an important flagship,” Wildlife Alliance director of science and global development Dr Thomas Gray told local press in January. Herranz Muñoz has since joined him in neighboring Botum Sakor National Park to deliver training to wildlife rangers on camera-trapping targeting Fishing Cats as part of continuing research on their distribution within the Cardamom Landscape.

Additionally, we will continue to work with local authorities, the IUCN and others to build capacity and enhance local knowledge of protected area management, facilitating alternative sustainable livelihood options for PKWS communities where possible.

Fishing Cat status in Southeast Asia

While it’s true that our results, including those from our threat assessment, allay fears about the population in PKWS, globally Fishing Cat status remains grave. It is important to note that the change in its IUCN Redlist status from Endangered in 2010 to Vulnerable in 2016 is a “non-genuine change reflecting the very recent increase in information quality; it does not indicate an improved conservation status for the species since the last assessment,” in the view of the assessors, including our Principal Investigator Vanessa.

We remain hopeful however that forthcoming surveys in Myanmar, mounted by world recognized small cat expert and fellow Fishing Cat Working Group member Dr Jim Sanderson in concert with local conservationists, reveal populations there.

The Future for Fishing Cats in PKWS

Suffice to say, we have considerable work ahead of us to further assess and survey suitable habitat within PKWS, which offers one of the most formidable landscapes in Cambodia in addition to some of the largest and densest mangrove forests in Southeast Asia.

360º panorama around camera-trap station to inform habitat assessment

Much of this forest is intact however, and the fact that mangroves are notoriously inaccessible, thus consistently under-surveyed, cannot be overstated – recent research suggests that they provide an important refuge for threatened species, especially primates and felids.

We cannot help but agree with fellow Fishing Cat Working Group member Sri Lankan researcher Anya Ratnayaka that the Fishing Cat is the “most charismatic focal species to be found [in the world’s] wetlands.” Our Project to preserve and protect them in the mangroves of Cambodia is just beginning.

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Acknowledgements

Our sincere thanks to the following for making these preliminary results possible!

The Ministry of Environment (MOE) of the Royal Government of Cambodia for granting us permission to conduct research in PKWS.

Koh Kapik Commune chief Khun Vanna

Koh Srolao Community Chief Tuy Vaeng

MOE rangers Mr Tan Menghour and Mr Bros

Boat drivers Mr Rath and Mr Veng

The Wildlife Alliance Kouprey Express team for their superb workshops with communities raising awareness of multiple aspects of wildlife in Cambodia, especially law & protection, welfare and their importance within the ecosystem as a whole.

Emilio Virgós (carnivore specialist at Universidad Rey Juan Carlos Madrid, Spain), PhD Supervisor to our Principal Investigator Vanessa Herranz Muñoz- for kindly donating White Flash cameras x6 and arranging for their transport to Cambodia from Spain.

Jeremy Holden, photographer and field biologist whose advice on placing camera-traps in the 2015 CBC Fishing Cat survey continues to inform activities in the field.

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Fishing Cat habitat part of new protected area network

Coastal mangroves are now contiguous with a protected area network of nearly 2.4 million ha

In May 2016, the Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC) declared five new protected areas (PAs) covering over one million ha of forest and grassland. This brings the total coverage of the national protected area system to 34% of the Cambodian land surface (Central Intelligence Agency, 2016; Open Development Cambodia, 2016b).

Biodiversity status

Cambodia forms part of the Indo-Burma biodiversity hotspot which, with its high levels of fauna and flora endemism, and limited remaining natural habitat, ranks among the top 10 for irreplaceability and top five for threat, according to the IUCN. Alarmingly, 37% of the key biodiversity areas within the region are not under any formal protection.

Fishing Cat habitat within protected area network

Amongst the new PAs declared is Chuo Phnom Kravanh Khang Tbong National Park, which links the Central Cardamom Mountains National Park with Tatai Wildlife Sanctuary, and connects the ridges of the Cardamom Mountains to the coastal mangroves at Peam Krosaop Wildlife Sanctuary (PKWS), a possible Fishing Cat stronghold in SE Asia, and Botum-Sakor National Park.

Figure 1: Protected areas designated in Cambodia in 2016 (light green): 1) Chuo Phnom Kravanh Khang Tbong National Park; previously established protected areas (dark green): A) Phnom Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary, B) Central Cardamom Mountains National Park, C) Phnom Aural Wildlife Sanctuary, D) Peam Krasop Wildlife Sanctuary, E) Tatai Wildlife Sanctuary, F) Botum-Sakor National Park, G) Samlaut Multiple Use area (Map adapted from by Souter at el 2016).

 

The contiguous protected area network through and adjoining the Cardamom Mountains now covers nearly 2.4 million ha (Open Development Cambodia, 2016b,c), stretching as far north as Samlaut Multiple Use area in Cambodia; Namtok Khlong Kaew National Park and Khlong Kruewai Chalearm Phrakiat Wildlife Sanctuary in Thailand.

More protection for the Fishing Cat

The declaration confers greater protection on the Fishing Cat as a species within the Cardamoms landscape, where there have been numerous records of the species: seized individuals from a village close to Botum Sakor National Park in 2008 (Royan 2009), two Fishing Cat kittens from Prey Nop district and from Koh Kong province in 2014, both courtesy of the Wildlife Alliance Wildlife Rapid Rescue Team (WRRT) (Gauntlett, pers comm), and a pelt discovered in Phnom Samkoh Wildlife Sanctuary (north Cardamom Mountains) by FFI staff in 2015. (Read more…)

Greater genetic diversity of Fishing Cat populations

Connectivity yields the possibility of greater genetic exchange between populations, enabling even transnational migration of Fishing Cats, thus strengthening the case for continued surveying of Fishing Cats across the landscape in order to characterise the metapopulation.

Other threatened species in the Cardamoms landscape

The expansion of the Cardamom Mountains protected landscape should reduce risk to 54 other globally threatened species (Killeen, 2012), especially Endangered Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) threatened with habitat fragmentation.

It may also benefit future tiger (Panthera tigris) populations; the National Park has been identified as a priority site for tiger restoration in Cambodia (DWB/GTI, 2016)- native Indochinese tigers were declared functionally extinct in the country in 2016 (Read more).

Future additional protections- UNESCO Man and Biosphere Reserve

The new declaration as Souter et al. (2016) point out, “strengthens justifications for designation of the area as a UNESCO Man and Biosphere Reserve [MAB].” Such reserves aim to integrate people and nature for sustainable development, involving multiple stakeholder agreement in designated zoning with various levels of protection, from maximum protection within core zones to transition zones where regulated activities may take place. Importantly, UNESCO MAB is a globally recognised figure, likely yielding increased investment in biodiversity research and conservation efforts, which is crucial within a protected area system which is severely underfunded (Souter et al. 2016).

In conclusion, we join Souter et al. (2016) and the conservation NGOs they represent in disseminating news of the RGC declaration, and hope that this and future decisions help to direct resources and technical support towards areas rich in biodiversity within a Hotspot that is one of the most biologically rich- and highly threatened- places in the world.

Read more about conservation plans in the new National Park

References

Central Intelligence Agency (2016) The World Factbook: Cambodia.[accessed 10 June 2016].

DWB/GTI (2016) Cambodian Tiger Action Plan. Department of Wildlife and Biodiversity, Forestry Administration, MAFF and Global Tiger Initiative. Phnom Penh, Cambodia [in Khmer].

IUCN: “On the verge of extinction: A look at endangered species in the Indo-Burma Hotspot”, 16 June 2015 http://www.iucn.org/content/verge-extinction-look-endangered-species-indo-burma-hotspot [accessed 26 July 2016].

Killeen, T.J. (2012) The Cardamom Conundrum: Reconciling Development and Conservation in the Kingdom of Cambodia. National University of Singapore Press, Singapore.

Souter, N., J., Simpson, V., Mould, A., Eames, J. C., Gray, T. N., Sinclair, R., Farrell, T., Jurgens, J., A., & Billingsley, A. (2016). Editorial—Will the recent changes in protected area management and the creation of five new protected areas improve biodiversity conservation in Cambodia? Cambodian Journal of Natural History, 1: 1-5 [accessed 25 July 2016].

Open Development Cambodia (2016b) Natural Protected Areas in Cambodia (1993-2016) [accessed 10 June 2016].

Open Development Cambodia (2016c) Greater Mekong Subregion Protected and Heritage Areas. [accessed 10 June 2016].

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