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The Sleepless Sentinel

Rare Frame :Fishing cat
Fishing cat fading fast form SBR landscape

Nature Indian News Bureau, Kolkata: This is enough for the conservationists to know that a Fishing Cat, Prionailurus viverrinus has been reported from Sundarban landscape after a prolonged period. Shamik Dutta has been able to find the animal at Pirkhali forest compartment under the Baghna range at night, while the status of Fishing Cat is considered threatened and has been already classified as schedule-I mammalian species as per Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972.

The specie is rarely found especially in its limited range of 24 Parganas (N&S), Haora, Hugli, and Jalpaiguri district of West Bengal. Today, the principle threat to their survival is degradation and loss of habitat. The wetlands, mangroves, and riparian habitats this cat needs to survive are under immense pressures from people and are undergoing massive conversion of land character. Moreover, the fishing cat’s luxurious spotted pelt is much sought after in the fur trade. These sensitive habitats are vitally important to regional economies, offering ecosystem services ranging from protecting water quality and mitigating floods and drought, to providing protection from tropical storms. The prime fishing cat habitat in the State, the great mangrove forest at the mouths of the Ganges, the Sundarbans, is a major nursery for the fisheries in the Bay of Bengal that provides food for enormous number of people. Therefore, fishing cats are what we call an indicator species; their presence may indicate the ecosystem is operating at a high level of quality and best achievable ecosystem function. The villagers often kill this small carnivore. An awareness campaign is urgently needed amongst the local residents to aware people that what they have in their backyards is something special and sensitive—an endangered wild cat that needs to be conserved and also recommending other steps, such as keeping domestic poultry in enclosures, to mitigate the conflicts. According to international reports, it appears that Fishing cats are found in scattered areas of the Oriental Region. They inhabit the peninsular region of India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Thailand, Java, and Pakistan. The specie, considered as one of the largest of the smaller cats, is powerfully built with short limbs and a stocky body. Fishing cat Prionailurus virverrinus is flagship specie for the suburban environment. The specie lives primarily in wetland areas, both marshes and swamps. These cats can be found in heavily forested regions adjacent to rivers or near jungles. They can also be found in scrub areas, reed beds, and tidal creek areas. Fishing cats have been reported in Himalayan forests at an elevation of 1525 m. (~5000 ft.); they have also been found at elevations as high as 7000 ft. (~ 2100 m.) in the mountainous areas of Sri Lanka. This is largest of the lineage of south and south-east Asian wild cats, though it is smaller than the Leopard. Fishing cat is found throughout the country including heavily populated suburbs. It is typically found in the thick vegetation associated with watercourses, wetland habitats such as swamps, marshes, reed beds, mangrove forests and also visits man-made wetlands such as rice fields. It is found around the fishponds in West Bengal, despite a dense human population. It is seen in different wetlands of the suburbs like East Kolkata and Panchla of Howrah district.

They have a long head and a short tail that is roughly one-third the length of their body. Their fur is coarse and brownish gray in color with distinctive dark markings. The markings are a combination of both spots and stripes. These spots are arranged longitudinally across the body. Six to eight dark lines run from above the eyes between the ears over the crown to the nape of the neck. These lines gradually break up into shorter bars and spots on the shoulders. The fur on the underside of P. viverrinus is longer and spotted, and the tail is ringed. The paws are webbed (helping the cat gain better traction in muddy environments and water), and the claws extend past the claw sheaths when retracted. These elongated claws help them hold onto slippery aquatic prey like fish, frogs, toads, snails and crustaceans. The short hair on the face is spotted, and the whiskers are short. The face has a distinctly flat-nosed appearance. The ears are short and round and the back side is black. When viewed from the front the ears have a distinctive white spot in the center. The males can weigh up to 12 kilograms but females are markedly smaller—which makes them about the size of an ocelot or lynx.

As the name implies, the fishing cat feeds on fish, but also eats waterfowls that live at the interface of the terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, small reptiles such as lizards and skinks, frogs and crabs. The cats are best described as piscivores and are an aquatic feeder very much at home under cover of the dense vegetation areas of the rivers and streams throughout its territory. Earliest records indicate that fishing cats predominantly feed on fish and shellfish. These early records also state that fishing cats have been known to eat dogs, sheep, and calves. At that time fishing cats were known to have taken human infants. In 1987 a fishing cat was observed eating a dead cow, so it is believed that they eat carrion. A study examining the food habits of P.viverrinus revealed that that they primarily feed on fish. A frequency analysis showed that out of 144 scats examined, 109 contained fish, 39 contained birds, 31 contained grass, 18 contained insects, 13 contained rodents, and 11 contained a mixture of snakes, lizards, mollusks, rabbits and cows. The scats of fishing cat also bear testimony of the fact that it can kill and eat smaller land mammals even including the porcupines. So they evidently supplement aquatic prey with more terrestrial animals. However, they scoop fish out of the water with their paws, much as a house cat does from a back yard pool, but quite unlike house cats, they also jump in head-first to capture their aquatic prey. Unusually, there are also reports of fishing cats traveling in pairs! It is a nocturnal hunter. But it is reported to be sighted very early in the morning (prowling near a small pond at Bakkhali behind the FRH). Fishing cats have been reported to take swimming ducks by coming up from underwater to capture them. When there is opportunity, they eat chickens and ducks, which, unfortunately, lead them into conflict with people. They also will eat from a dead carcass, such as those thrown into the water for disposal, and this makes them vulnerable to poisoning. Fishing cats do not have any documented predators other than man. Fishing cats show strong sexual dimorphism. The size of P. viverrinus varies with gender, males are considerably larger. The measurements of p. viverrinus are as follow: length 65.8 cm to 85.7 cm, tail 25.4 cm to 28 cm, hind foot 13.4 cm to 15.8 cm, and the ears are 4.7 cm to 5.1 cm in length. Fishing cats stand over 35 cm high at shoulder level and weight 6.3 to 1.8 kgs depending on gender. Fishing Cats usually hunt by the light of day. Fishing cats have been observed in the wild "fishing" at the edges of bodies of water. They appear to scoop their prey from the depths of the water and have also been observed playing with fish in shallow water. They swim often but skillfully. It was observed fishing cats entering the water and scooping out their prey during moonlit nights. During these observations they also witnessed fishing cats eating grass and gerbils. In captivity fishing cats have been observed taking cow flesh to the water and dropping it in, retrieving it, and then eating it. This same washing behavior was mimicked when fishing cats were offered live quail. The home range for female fishing cats was found to be 4-8 km2. The home range for a male was 22 km2. Female fishing cats call to attract males to initiate mating.

It is polygynous. It breeds once yearly, during the months of January and February. They have also been known to breed in June. The gestation period is 63 days, after which the female gives birth to 1 to 4 kittens. The average litter size is 2. The kittens generally weigh 100 to 173 grams at birth and will gain roughly 11 grams per day. On the 16th day their eyes open. The kittens take meat around the 53rd day and are weaned at 4 to 6 months of age. At 8 to 9 months the young reach adult size and are independent at 10 months. They probably reach sexual maturity soon after. Males in captivity have been observed helping females care for and rear the young. It is unclear whether fishing cats repeat this behavior in the wild. The young are cared by their mother, when they reach approximately 10 months of age, they become independent. Not much is known about the lifespan of fishing cats in the wild. Zoo records indicate they may live up to 12 years in captivity.

The important questions that arise here are when we think of threatened or endangered larger mammals, we usually think of wilderness. But could it be that this little known cat is living right under our nose in the Sundarbans—even urban in environments? Can we conserve them in the remnant habitats that have survived urban sprawl? Or will they vanish from the face of earth?