The Fishing Cat

The Fishing Cat (Prionailurus viverrinus) is a medium-sized felid, which gets its name from its “viverridae” or civet-like appearance.

Profile

Its physical attributes according to the IUCN Cat Specialist Group are:

Weight: 7-16 kg

Body length: 65-85 cm

Tail length: 25-30 cm

The Fishing Cat is the largest of the Prionailurus genus, dwarfing the Flat-Headed Cat (Prionailurus planiceps) and Rusty-Spotted Cat (Prionailurus rubiginosus), not to mention the Leopard Cat (Prionailurus bengalensis), for which it is often mistaken. The Fishing Cat has a muscular, heavyset build and short legs which, together with an unusually short tail, help to distinguish it from the Leopard Cat.

Prionailurus members bear conspicuous stripes and spot patterns on the head, face and body. The Fishing Cat typically displays six to eight black lines from forehead to neck, disbanding into shorter lines and longitudinal spots on the shoulders. Its spots are brown-black on an grey-olive coat, stand it apart from the Leopard Cat, which more often has a sand-grey coat.

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Special Features

  • Relatively big, broad head with small, rounded ears
  • Water-resistant double-coated fur keeps the cat dry while it dives to catch fish
  • Short, stocky and powerfully built legs
  • Thick, muscular tail unusually short tail for a felid (distinguishing it from Leopard Cat), around a third of the total head and body length; perhaps used as a rudder

Habitat and Ecology

The Fishing Cat is highly associated with wetlands, and is found in suitable areas of marshlands, mangroves, streams and rivers.

Observed hunting at the edges of watercourses, the Fishing Cat often crouches on rocks and sandbanks, using their paw (semi-retractable claws) to scoop out fish which represented 76% of its diet in a scat-study in India’s Keoladeo National Park, the rest being birds, insects and small rodents (Haque and Vijayan 1993). According to the IUCN Cat Specialist Group, they have also been observed swimming underwater to catch coots and ducks. Anya Ratnayaka of the Urban Fishing Cat Project, Sri Lanka answers the age-old question, “How does a Fishing Cat fish?”, in her blog here.

Fishing Cat habitat in PKWS | Photo credit: Vanessa Herranz Muñoz

Fishing Cat habitat in PKWS | Photo credit: Vanessa Herranz Muñoz

The following is taken from the IUCN Red List assessment (2016), for more information see below.

“In India the Fishing Cat is strongly associated with water bodies, marshlands constituting tall bed-forming graminoid species like the reed Phragmites vallatoria, the reedmace Typha elephantina and locally cultivated grass species like Saccharum narenga and swamps (Adhya 2015). Most known records are from the lowlands, but in Sri Lanka Fishing Cat occurs also in wetlands in hilly areas (Thudugala 2016).

The Fishing Cat is largely nocturnal (Mukherjee 1989, Sunquist and Sunquist 2002, Lynam et al. 2013). It is a dietary generalist consuming a variety of prey such as murid rodents, birds and fish (Mukherjee 1989, Haque and Vijayan 1993, Adhya 2015). Two species of rodents that figured prominently in the diet of the Fishing Cat from the Howrah district of West Bengal, a rapidly developing urbanised zone, were Rattus rattus (sensu lato) and Bandicota bengalensis. A conservative estimate of rodent consumption by the Fishing Cat suggests that each individual eats between 365 and 730 rodents per year (Adhya 2015).

A radio-telemetry study on four Fishing Cats in Chitwan National Park in Nepal showed that they mostly used dense tall and short grasslands; the home ranges of three females was estimated at 4-6 km² while that of a single male was estimated at 16-22 km² (Sunquist and Sunquist 2002). A more recent radio-telemetry study in Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park, Thailand, demonstrated that protection of resources such as food and daytime resting sites and reduction of poaching can ensure the persistence of the Fishing Cat in human-modified agricultural areas (Cutter and Cutter 2009). A 84% mortality of radio-collared cats, due to poaching and unknown causes, was reported during the three-year study (Cutter 2015).”

Updated information from the 2016 IUCN Red List assessment (full assessment here)

The following contains excerpts from the IUCN Red List assessment (2016) regarding general trends, with especial focus on Cambodia and mainland Southeast Asia.

In previously published Red List assessments (2008, 2010), Fishing Cat was categorised as Endangered (EN). In the latest assessment (2016), the species has been downlisted to Vulnerable (VU), however, assessors wish to make clear the following:

The change in Red List category 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.”

Current population trend: Decreasing.

Justification

“Recent surveys suggest that Fishing Cat populations are still in decline within all range countries at an alarming rate, particularly in Southeast Asia. A severe paucity of recent records in Viet Nam, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, Java, and, if the species occurs there at all, Lao PDR, indicate that these populations are very small, and have been since at least 2000. There are no recent records from Sumatra (Indonesia), where the species has never been confirmed to occur, although in the light of only limited appropriate survey effort in these areas, the species’s current status should be considered unknown. In South Asia, although relatively widespread, it occurs largely in human-dominated landscapes (often hugely so), which are under locally severe threat from urbanization (Sri Lanka and India) and industrialization (India). Estimates of population size and trend, and of extents of habitat, are very speculative, given that research on this species has been initiated only in 2009 (Cutter 2015). Yet, research reveals a declining population facing an array of severe threats from habitat destruction to active persecution due to perceived conflict (Mukherjee et al. 2012, Cutter 2015, Adhya 2016). Poaching and retribution killing were the major causes for a high Fishing Cat mortality of 84% in Thailand, where 16 individuals have been monitored over a three-year radio-telemetry study (Cutter 2015).

The current known global Fishing Cat strongholds are Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, West Bengal in India and the Terai-Duar belt of the Himalayan foothills in India and Nepal. Habitat loss along with the killing of Fishing Cats because of conflict with local people throughout the species’ range has led to a global population decline suspected to be 30% or more in the past 15 years (three generations). Outside these strongholds, declines may be considerably steeper, but such populations are believed now to comprise such a small proportion of the global population that they will have negligible effect on the overall global population decline rate. Habitat destruction and retaliatory killings continue and the process of reducing this loss through several measures is likely to be very slow. Irreversible losses of around 10% of Fishing Cat habitat in Sri Lanka, 30% in the Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta and 10% in the Terai-Duar savanna and grasslands ecoregion of India and Nepal are likely in the next 15 years (Ashan Thudugala, Anya Ratnayaka, Tiasa Adhya, Shomita Mukherjee, Murthy Kantimahanti, Giridhar Malla, Rama Mishra, Sagar Dahal pers. comm. 2015). These rates being compounded by ongoing retaliatory killing, it is likely that in the next 15 years there will be a decrease of a further 30% in the global Fishing Cat population. Thus, the species is categorized as Vulnerable under A2cd+3cd+4cd.

Geographic Range

Fishing Cat range according adapted from IUCN Redlist 2016 assessment

“The Fishing Cat range countries include: Bangladesh; Cambodia; India; Myanmar; Nepal; Pakistan; Sri Lanka; Thailand.

The natural distribution of the Fishing Cat is unclear throughout its global range, with many unauthenticated, ambiguous and erroneous records clouding understanding (Pocock 1939, Duckworth et al. 2009, Janardhanan et al. 2014, Appel 2016, Duckworth 2016, Willcox 2016). In addition the species is not well recorded by typical modern general faunal surveys, meaning that absence of records from areas without specific Fishing Cat surveys should not be taken to imply absence of the species (Duckworth et al. 2009, 2010, Janardhanan et al. 2014, Appel 2016). Other factors also hinder determination of current range: putative introductions, sporadic records from regions not included in past distribution assessments, persistence in small pockets but with drastically reduced numbers and potentially amid areas of widespread extirpation, and possible recent extinctions through much of its range (Adhya et al. 2011, Mukherjee et al. 2012, Willcox et al. 2014, Adhya 2016, Duckworth 2016, Kantimahanti 2016, Mukherjee 2016, Willcox 2016).

The Fishing Cat is widely distributed in South and Southeast Asia from Pakistan in the west to Cambodia in the east, and from the Himalayan foothills in the north to Sri Lanka and peninsular Thailand in the south. Its distribution was probably always patchy because of its strong association with wetlands. Current known occurrence is extremely localized across the range except for West Bengal in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.  Results of a molecular analysis of Fishing Cat faeces from five protected areas in India indicated that in the past Fishing Cat populations were connected from the Terai in northern India to the Coringa mangroves on India’s east coast; it is unknown whether contemporary populations are still connected physically (Mukherjee et al. 2012, Mukherjee 2016). Also unknown is whether population units in the Terai-Duar savanna and grasslands ecoregion at the base of the Himalayas are connected outside protected areas or along river courses.

More recently, the species has been recorded in areas where it was never observed before, such as in southern Andhra Pradesh, India, and in the far south of coastal Thailand. It had presumably been overlooked in these areas previously; they are unlikely to indicate recent range extension. Elsewhere in Southeast Asia its occurrence is likely to be extremely patchy in Viet Nam, Lao PDR (if it occurs there at all), Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Java, Indonesia.

Cambodia and mainland Southeast Asia

“Cambodia: camera-trap records are scarce and limited to Kulen Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary in the country’s north-east (Rainey and Kong 2010), and mangrove habitats in Peam Krasaop Wildlife Sanctuary and Ream National Park on the coast (Thaung and Herranz Muñoz 2016). Despite extensive camera-trapping in eastern and northern Cambodia including Kulen Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary in recent years, Fishing Cat was not recorded. (Edwards et al. 2012, Gray et al. 2012, Simon Mahood pers. comm. 2016). A kitten found orphaned in Botum-Sakor National Park was identified as Fishing Cat, but may have been a Leopard Cat (Royan 2009). Of many other claims in the last 15 years, most are certainly in error, but a critical evaluation of all has not been performed.

Thailand: during targeted surveys Fishing Cat was recorded inside Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park and Thale Noi Non-Hunting Area along the coast, but not in protected areas farther inland that were previously thought to harbour Fishing Cat (Cutter and Cutter 2009, Tantipisanuh et al. 2014). An incidental record came from the coast in southern Thailand (Buatip et al. 2013; confirmed by photograph examined by J.W. Duckworth and W. Chutipong pers. comm. 2016), which constitutes the southernmost valid record with a precise locality to date in mainland Southeast Asia.

In Lao PDR most claims are either in certain error or non-assessable; only one sounds credible but this is a sight-record that cannot be validated (Duckworth et al. 2010).

Viet Nam: Fishing Cat may persist in the Mekong Delta, where it was last camera-trapped in 2000 (Willcox 2016). There is a very small possibility that it occurs in the Red River Delta (where it has never been confirmed), though there have been no targeted surveys to be confident of genuine absence or local extinction (Willcox et al. 2014).

In Myanmar, there are only two certain field records: one from the early 20th century in the Hukaung Valley in the north, and one from Meinmahla Kyun Wildlife Sanctuary in the Ayeyarwady (= Irrawaddy) delta in or around 2015 (Than Zaw in litt. 2016). This corroborates reports that a few captive individuals in the country are said to be descendants of animals captured in or around the 1990s in the Ayeyarwady delta (Than Zaw et al. 2014).

 

Population

“Fishing Cat populations and habitat in Southeast Asia are severely stressed and the species’ current stronghold is in eastern and southern parts of South Asia. According to Melisch et al. (1996), in West Java, Fishing Cat populations were fragmented and restricted to coastal areas. However, this was in the 1990s and the evidence was based solely on visual identification of tracks and scats, which may not be reliable; the last photographic evidence of the species in the wild on Java dates to 2000 (A. Compost in litt. 2012). The Fishing Cat was not recorded during intensive camera-trapping targeting Javan Rhinoceros in Ujung Kulon National Park (Jim Sanderson in litt. 2016). It is unclear the extent, if any, to which these surveys covered microhabitat suitable for Fishing Cat. In sum, it is impossible to speculate on current population size in Java, if the species even survives there at all. In Viet Nam the species is perhaps extinct in most or even all of its former range but it was confirmed to persist in the Mekong Delta until at least 2000 (Willcox et al. 2014). It is not known if it ever occurred in the Red River Delta; given general levels of hunting and persecution in the country it seems unlikely that any large population remains anywhere in Viet Nam (Daniel Willcox in litt. 2015).

In Thailand too, the species seems to be highly localised and recent surveys and incidental records suggest that it is restricted to coastal parts of Central and Southern Thailand (Cutter and Cutter 2009, Buatip et al. 2013, Tantipisanuh et al. 2014). There is at least one historical Thai specimen identified as this species from well inland (Duckworth et al. 2010), but the extent to which the species ever occurred widely across inland Thailand, if at all, remains unclear. Outside Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park, coastal Thailand, (Cutter 2015) documented 84% mortality of radio-collared Fishing Cats due to poaching and unknown causes over her three-year study period.

Its presence in the Ayeyarwady delta in Myanmar was recently confirmed (Than Zaw pers. comm. 2016), but there is no indication of the population size there, although given the extent of the habitat it could be large.

Extensive camera-trapping in the general area of the only historical locality record from Myanmar, the Hukaung Valley, did not find the species, but camera-traps were not set to target this species, so it is unclear whether it persists there (Than Zaw et al. 2014).

Habitat loss and destruction along with the killing of Fishing Cats by local people throughout the species’ range has led to a global population decline suspected to be 30% or more, in the past 15 years (three generations). Outside the strongholds, declines may have been considerably steeper, but such populations are believed now to comprise such a small proportion of the global population that they will have negligible effect on the overall global population decline rate. Habitat destruction and retaliatory killings continue currently, and the process of reducing this loss through several measures is likely to be very slow. Irreversible losses of around 10% of Fishing Cat habitat in Sri Lanka, 10% in the Terai-Duar savanna and grasslands ecoregion of India and Nepal and 30% in the Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta are likely in the next 15 years. These rates being compounded by ongoing retaliatory killing, it is likely that in the next 15 years there will be a drop of a further 30% in the global population.

Threats

“The Fishing Cat faces a high risk of extinction throughout its range and is thought to be amongst the most vulnerable of the small and medium-sized cats in Southeast Asia, reflecting the very low overlap of occupied habitat with protected areas and other conservation interventions, rather than any particular inherent higher susceptibility than shown by the other small cats (e.g. Duckworth et al. 2014). The major threat across its South Asian range appears to be habitat loss and fragmentation by developmental activities such as urbanization, industrialization, agriculture and aquaculture (prawn and shrimp farms), whereas in Southeast Asia persecution is the major threat (Melisch et al. 1996, Cutter and Cutter 2009, Tantipisanuh et al. 2014, Willcox et al. 2014). Outside Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park, Thailand, Cutter (2015) reported 84% mortality of radio-collared Fishing Cats during the study period. Of 16 Fishing Cats that were radio-collared, three could not be located and could have either dispersed or died. Of the remaining 13, only two survived the almost three-year study period while five were poached and six died of unknown causes. Five dead cats were located. In one case the poacher who shot an animal reported the cause of death when he returned its ear tag.

In Cambodia the Fishing Cat is killed by locals for consumption or in retaliation for damaging fishing nets (Thaung and Herranz Muñoz 2016). Such killings probably occur throughout its Southeast Asian range.

In Thailand a radio-telemetry study (Cutter 2015) demonstrated that poaching is a major threat when five of 16 radio-collared individuals were killed by poachers (for consumption and retaliation) within the three-year study period. Cutter (2015) documented 84% mortality of radio-collared individuals attributed to poaching and unknown causes. Opportunistic trading of skins and potentially other parts is likely to occur in mainland Southeast Asia, where such trading is at very high levels and involves a wide diversity of species (e.g. Willcox et al. 2014), but there is no evidence of its being particularly sought after there.

Conservation actions

“Fishing Cat is included in CITES Appendix II and protected by national legislation over most of its range. Hunting is prohibited in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Viet Nam. In Viet Nam Fishing Cat has the highest level of protection under the main species protection law (decree 32/2006/ND-CP) and is included in appendix I B. This completely prohibits any exploitation or commercial trade. There is no protection afforded outside protected areas in Nepal (Karan B. Shah, pers. comm. 2015).

Since 1985, the Fishing Cat has been confirmed to occur in protected areas (but it should not be assumed necessarily to survive in all) including the Sundarbans in Bangladesh and India; Suklaphanta, Chitwan and Koshi Tappu in Nepal; Corbett, Dudwha, Keoladeo Ghana, Coringa and Kaziranga in India; Yala, Wilpattu, Maduru Oya, Horton Plains, Dunumadallawa, Kalametiya, Sinharaja, Bundala and Uda Walawe in Sri Lanka; Khao Sam Roi Yot and Thale Noi in Thailand; Kulen Promtep, Peam Krasaop and Ream in Cambodia. Several wetlands that hold Fishing Cat populations are listed under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of important wetlands, e.g. Sundarbans in Bangladesh, Chilika Lake, Keoladeo Ghana and East Kolkata Wetlands in India, Jagadishpur Reservoir in Nepal and Chotiari Reservoir in Pakistan.

The survival of the species depends on adequate protection of remaining wetlands in Asia, and prevention of indiscriminate trapping, snaring and poisoning.

References

Mukherjee, S., Appel, A., Duckworth, J.W., Sanderson, J., Dahal, S., Willcox, D.H.A., Herranz Muñoz, V., Malla, G., Ratnayaka, A., Kantimahanti, M., Thudugala, A. & Thaung R. and Rahman, H. 2016. Prionailurus viverrinus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T18150A50662615. Downloaded on 04 October 2016.

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