Three Longs & Three Shorts

The fight to save India’s most elusive cat

Crazy as it sounds but even today in a country inhabited by 1.4 billion people, there are some wild animals in India about whom Indian zoologists, biologists and conservationists know very little. The fishing cat is one of them. In the words of a biologist Murthy Kantimahanti  who has tracked these cats, here’s how it looks like “It was bigger than a house cat, but not as big as a leopard or a tiger. It had a squarish face, relatively small ears for the size of its head, a short tail and curiously webbed feet, like an aquatic animal…there was one trait that helped Kantimahanti identify it instantly –  sheer aggression. Having eaten its piece of beef, this cat, a male, lunged fiercely and repeatedly at the bars of the trap.”
The fishing cat is found in India’s Eastern Ghats, in the Sundarbans and in 11 other Asian countries. And yet very little is known about this nocturnal creature. Inspite of conservationists attempts in Andhra Pradesh through 2014 to 2018 to do a population count on these animals, no one knows how many fishing cats exist in India. In fact, as the years go by data is emerging showing the fishing cat to be an extremely versatile predator: “Besides numbers, the census revealed some of the idiosyncrasies of this elusive cat. The survey identified the first known inland fishing cat, found in freshwater habitats along Srikakulam district in northern Andhra Pradesh. Then in December 2020, Kantimahanti was startled to see camera-trap footage of a cat hunting a freshwater non-venomous snake. Fish had been considered the cats’ mainstay, and the cats were only thought to prey on other animals when there was a dearth of fish – though on this occasion there was plenty of fish available. In another incident, villagers had assumed a large cat attacking their livestock was a leopard, but it turned out to be a fishing cat. Another camera feed showed a fishing cat being run over by a train while chasing goats.
“The name fishing cat is a misnomer,” says Kantimahanti. The cat is a markedly versatile predator. “It can hunt animals bigger than itself, survive anywhere, feed on anything.””
Even more interestingly, in India itself fishing cats are found in two distinct habitats: “The fishing cat is usually found in two types of habitat within a wetland: mangroves and marshes. They take refuge in the reed fields – the long-bladed wetland grasses that grow in swamps. “They prefer shallow wetlands and are nest-making cats,” says Tiasa Adhya, a Kolkata-based conservationist and co-founder of The Fishing Cat Project. Their nests, made with marshy reeds and secluded in the tree holes of mangroves, are why the habitat is so inseparable from the species. “It’s here, where you can find a rich haul of snake-head and cat-fish, on which the fishing cat thrives,” says Adhya.”
As further evidence of the fishing cat’s hunting habits, conservationists are trying to understand what role it plays in maintaining the ecological balance of India’s wetlands: “Mangrove forests depend on a delicate balance to survive, says Giridhar Malla, a PhD researcher from the Wildlife Institute of India, who has been studying the fishing cat along the Godavari River delta in Andhra Pradesh, and its links to climate change since 2013. He has documented 15 different fishing cats in the area, monitoring their behaviour, especially during lunar phases. Everything in a mangrove ecosystem depends on the ebb and flow of water, which is linked to the tides governed by the lunar phases.
“The fishing cat hunts during low tide,” says Malla. The cats wait tirelessly for the conditions to hunt to be exactly right. During high tide, the surge of water brings in the fish, but the water must ebb for the fishing cat to hunt. Malla says he observed a fishing cat that had waited eight hours until low tide to catch its fish. “This is one stubborn, unique cat,” he says.
The health of the mangroves is inextricably linked to the health of the fishing cat, he says. While the mangrove habitat supports the cat, it also acts as a carbon sink, sequestering four times as much carbon as other tree species. He’s currently studying its role in mitigating climate change.”
A Sri Lankan research Anya Ratanayake has been studying the behaviour of fishing cats who inhabit the wetlands in the suburbs of Colombo. She has good news to report: “”Twenty square kilometres of Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, is natural wetlands,” she says. “The fishing cat has proved that it can co-exist with humans, even in this urban wetland habitat.”
Her work began in 2015, after escalating conflict incidents involving the fishing cat. “People would pick up abandoned kittens from the city, thinking they were domestic cats, but quickly return them to authorities, startled by how aggressive they were,” she says.
In the same year, a fishing cat was caught on camera, stealing expensive Japanese koi fish from a pond. Ratnayaka set up 10 camera traps in different locations, and for months, attempted to follow this cat across the cityscape after tagging it with a GPS device. “I was stunned. It went everywhere,” she says. “It visited people’s gardens, sunned itself on rooftops, fed from private ponds. It even visited the premises of a movie theatre in the heart of the city, quite fittingly, during the premiere of the Monkey Kingdom.””