9 Apr 2015

Fishing Cat Conservation : Connecting to the Bigger Picture !

Ever heard of this species called the fishing cat? What if I tell you it is currently the most endangered cat in India, even more endangered than the Tiger. I was surprised when I got introduced to it and also came to know, it is the state animal of West Bengal.

Fishing Cat conservation

Prionailurus viverrinus (the fishing cat), is mainly found in wetlands or swamps and as it name tells, it mainly preys on fishes. They are mostly nocturnal in nature and have some interesting characteristics. Unlike other cats, it is not scared of water, but very much at home in it. It has been even seen diving into it to catch its prey. Their slightly webbed claws help it to swim long distances, even under water.

Fishing Cat conservation
The elusive cat. Source: http://www.fishingcat.org

Sadly, this amazing and elusive species found in mangroves is silently getting extinct without catching any attention. Habitat loss is the major reason, but even more is the lack of awareness about it. This is where the story of an unsung hero, Ashwin Naidu, comes into picture.

Ashwin did his Ph.D. from University of Arizona and has dedicated his life towards the conservation of this endangered species along the eastern coast of south India. Ashwin is a member of the IUCN Cat Specialist Group, and his research interest is in use of non-invasive methods for management and conservation of wild cat species. During a talk in Hyderabad, Ashwin introduced the audience to this species and his passion towards its conservation. Along the coastline of Andhra, he is running one the most successful community driven conservation program, under the Eastern Ghats wildlife society. In fact, the dedicated reserve created for this species here is the first community managed reserve in India.

Fishing Cat conservation Ashwin Naidu
                    Ashwin Naidu
Ashwin shared the challenges of his work. First there was very less scientific data available for this species, which was earlier thought of only found in Western Ghats, but talking to local communities on eastern side told a different story all together. Many villagers confirmed seeing this species, so there was a need to survey the mangrove forests of eastern coastline to actually map the data of its occurrence. After months of surveying indulging the local communities and using the techniques of witness data, camera trapping, scat analysis and pug mark identification, the team was actually able to create a map that gave the big picture about the occurrence of this cat.

Identifying cat spoor, with local people at Krishna Wildlife Sanctuary. Source: http://www.fishingcat.org/

Second was identifying the threats and mitigating them. Habitat loss due to prawn and fish farming (aquaculture) was a major concern, but due to efforts of people like Appa Rao (also called the Mangrove man) helped a lot to bring back what was lost as the precious mangrove cover here. Why mangroves are so important, got evident to me after the talk. They stop soil erosion to sea, they are the walls that protect coastal villages from storms, they are natural fisheries where so many species of fish thrive and they are unique habitats where river water and brine meet so its biodiversity is unique. And the most important is the sequestration capacity of mangroves, which is 5 times the normal land forest cover. So it seemed a promising prospect to save the habitat for this species, as in the process we are achieving much more.

Poaching was another threat. The cats posed danger to poultry and livestock in villages around the coastline which resulted in villagers anguish and they mostly hunted them down. They were also reported to be hunted for meat, sold in market for Rs.250 per kg. An awareness program where they adopted entire villages and shared about the importance of this species which was in their backyard. That it was as important as the tigers and that killing it was a criminal offence. This helped in sensitizing the communities which now turned protectors for them. They enthusiastically participate in the surveying efforts and saving their mangroves habitat. More awareness added when the story of the cat hit the headlines of “Andhra Jyoti”, a local newspaper and its study was made part of school curriculums. Better chicken coops and safe place for livestock reduced human conflicts and added more help to the conservation efforts.

Prospects of Eco-tourism, around this valuable species, and the scenic and unique mangroves, are also being considered which could act as a revenue source for the communities and also motivates them towards conserving these priceless habitats. It was in fact surprising to me the enthusiasm the local communities have shown for saving this cat. Mostly they, like other wild animals, are considered nuisance. But once the people were sensitized about this creature as an asset of their backyard forest, they showed great enthusiasm and committed to do whatever possible to save it. That is inspiring and motivating for conservation enthusiasts around the country, because the best solutions come only through community driven efforts.

Currently a project for population estimation is in progress in AP with AP’s forest department and HyTiCoS (Hyderabad Tiger Conservation Society). More details about the entire effort is available at www.fishingcat.org and www.eghats.com.

How such conservation activities connect to the bigger picture?What can be done more in this important area?

(Written by Gaganpreet Singh, a passionate adventurer and nature lover, working with Microsoft as a Software Engineer. He is also associated with a social initiative 'Joy of Reading' )




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