Wild Life
10.11.2016

Fishing Cat’s Cradle

Under the watchful eye of a local conservation biologist, the world’s only wetland cat eeks out a strange existence in some of Southeast Asia’s most heavily fragmented habitats.

Deep within a freshwater marsh in southeastern Thailand, a camera sits inconspicuously beneath a star-studded sky. At the slightest hint of movement—a paw squishing into thick mud, a curious nose nudging a piece of bait—the camera comes to life, its shutter clicking amidst the resounding chorus of frogs. Only the forest of grasses surrounding the clearing bears witness as the flash exposes its elusive subject for a brief moment in time.

Passanan “Namfon” Cutter had waited almost five years for one of her camera traps to trigger at a moment like this. But she didn’t actually know what she had captured until she and her team followed a machete-slashed path back into the marsh at first light to retrieve the film and develop it back in town.

“When I realized we had gotten the picture, I almost had a heart attack,” says Namfon, a conservation biologist who for more than a decade has pieced together a meager research budget from any funding source she can find. “I nearly jumped to kiss the person who handed me the picture album in the shop.”

That fateful photograph, which was captured nearly 10 years ago, marked a turning point for Namfon’s research—and for the conservation of one of the rarest cats on the planet. The picture proved, for the first time, that a mysterious feline known as the fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus) was present in Thailand. No one had ever documented the elusive species in the country before. In fact, before Namfon dedicated a decade of her life to the effort, few people had ever bothered to try.

Across Southeast Asia, very little is known about fishing cats in the wild, and—while everyone agrees there aren’t many of them left on the planet—no one can pinpoint exactly where the remaining cats roam. But since Namfon captured her first camera trap photo of these charismatic cats and launched a landmark study to gather data about their distribution and behavior, a clearer picture is beginning to emerge—one that is helping scientists to ensure the against-all-odds survival of this wetland warrior.

Elusive and endangered, fishing cats are rarely seen—even by the scientists who study them, making camera traps invaluable tools for understanding their distribution. 

An obligatory wetland cat

Despite a superficial resemblance to common house cats, fishing cats differ from their couch- and windowsill-dwelling relatives in a number of ways. The wild felines are slightly larger (males can be the size of a cocker spaniel), and their short, clipped growls almost sound like barks. But the most obvious difference is probably their unique relationship with water. Unlike house cats, whose aversion to water has inspired a whole host of drowned-cat idioms and metaphors, fishing cats love the water—and their survival is inextricably tied to it.

As their common name implies, fishing cats prey mostly on freshwater fish and other marine invertebrates. They tend to fish mostly from the banks, sitting patiently at the water’s edge and waiting for an opportune moment to snare fish with their non-retractable claws. But the cats are also well-adapted swimmers. They use their short tails like a rudder to steer a course through the water, and a dense layer of fur close to their skin helps to keep water from penetrating while they paddle.

Their strong affinity for wetland prey and coastal habitats—from inland floodplains and deltas to coastal mangroves and wetlands—has allowed fishing cats to fill a specific ecological niche and avoid competition with other predators, including larger cats like leopards and tigers. It has also made them incredibly difficult to locate and study.

“You’re not going to find fishing cats distributed across a landscape the way you would leopards,” says Dr. Anthony Giordano, a carnivore ecologist and conservation biologist. He points out that the patchy, discontinuous distribution of fishing cats is no coincidence given their close association with equally patchy wetland habitats. “They are truly the only obligatory wetland cats.”

Giordano leads the Society for the Preservation of Endangered Carnivores and their International Ecological Study (S.P.E.C.I.E.S.), and over the years he has assessed the status and distribution of fishing cat populations in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. “When you look at the big picture, we are still trying to fill in the basic holes as to where fishing cats occur. It would almost be like throwing a dart to the wall: Who knows if fishing cats can be found where that dart lands.”

Fishing Cat Distribution

Historically, fishing cat distribution is thought to have spanned from the Indus Valley of Pakistan east to Cambodia, and from the high Himalayan foothills south to Java. But unauthenticated, vague, and erroneous recordkeeping has complicated scientists’ assumptions as to where this species once thrived, and where it might still hang on today. It now seems likely that fishing cats have been lost from many of these regions, but no one knows for certain. Given the inherent challenges in identifying and counting fishing cat populations, scientists say that there is not enough widespread, long-term data to know how many fishing cats occupy the world’s last few fragments of suitable habitat. But their best guess is that it’s likely no more than a few thousand.

Following her first successful camera-trap capture of a wild fishing cat, Namfon began to tirelessly spread the word about her search for these animals, which are frequently mistaken for outsized house cats. Then, in 2009, she happened upon a park ranger outside the village of Sam Roi Yod. He invited her over to see a pair of wild cats his son had rescued from a nearby rice paddy. Namfon—who was already many years in to her search—walked in and laid eyes for the first time on a living, albeit hissing, pair of fishing cats.

“I was happy to see them alive but so sad at the same time,” Namfon says, recalling her reaction to seeing the cats in captivity. “After finally locating them, I was just amazed at how they managed to survive in such a changing environment.”

Wetlands in southeastern Thailand—critical habitat for fishing cats and many other species—are rapidly being lost to shrimp farms.

Bulldozers, Backhoes, and Shrimp

In southeastern Thailand, the landscape is nothing short of dramatic. A series of mountain peaks rise up to 605 meters (2,000 feet) like giant limestone waves waiting to break over the floodplains below. Here Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park—which includes Thailand’s largest freshwater marsh—abuts the village of Sam Roi Yod, where Namfon was finally able to locate a population of fishing cats large enough to study. At this interface, the coastal wetlands are rapidly being converted into a stamped-out patchwork of commercial aquaculture.

“If you can ignore the shrimp farms, you can just imagine how beautiful this area must have looked before it was all dug up,” says Morgan Heim, an American photographer who along with colleague Joanna Nasar joined Namfon and her team in the field on several occasions to document Namfon’s Fishing Cat Research and Conservation Project, the first effort designed to conduct an in-depth ecological investigation of fishing cats in Thailand. The team would eventually capture, radio collar, and camera trap nearly two dozen individuals, tracking the animals’ movements and identifying threats to the species’ survival.

In the mornings, the team would whisk carefully through the maze of razor-edged marsh grasses in order to reach the camera traps as quickly as possible. “You never knew the next morning whether your camera would still be standing or bulldozed over,” recalls Heim. Amidst the dry tropical heat, the cao-cao cao-cao of wading migratory birds was often punctuated by the metallic chugachugachuga of clanging machinery. “At one point we looked up from adjusting our camera traps to find the digger claw of a backhoe literally dangling a few feet away from us,” she says.

Bulldozers and backhoes are dramatically transforming the landscape here. While small-scale subsistence shrimp farming has always been a way of life in the region, major conglomerates have begun leasing land from subsistence farmers. Near Sam Roi Yod, the subsidiary Charoen Pokphand Foods PCL (CPF) leases smaller plots from locals, and then excavates much larger ponds, flooding them with water from the surrounding wetlands to create large aquaculture operations.

What’s driving this rapid landscape transformation? Demand for cheap shrimp. Shrimp is the most popular seafood in the United States, and 90 percent of this product is imported—the majority of which is farm-raised. Thailand is one of the world’s leaders in shrimp exports, feeding this hungry industry by continuing to build more shrimp farms. Although organic farming is on the rise in Thailand, alleviating some of the pressures—like water depletion and introduced chemicals—that shrimp farms place on wetlands, these methods still chew up huge tracts of land, leaving little natural habitat for fishing cats.

But not every fishing cat population faces a future so bleak. Populations appear to vary in their ability to adapt to human-altered landscapes, with some fairing far better than others. For example, in Colombo, the densely populated, coastal capital of Sri Lanka, Giordano says the fishing cat population is thriving despite human development. The construction of artificial lakes and reservoirs in Sri Lanka (a country historically without inland bodies of water) has created flooded habitat that might be benefitting fishing cats.

“The remaining populations of fishing cats occupy very different kinds of ecosystems, so the drivers of habitat change are all going to be different too,” says Giordano. “This means that each population faces unique conflict challenges.”

According to Namfon’s study, fishing cats in Thailand have proven quite resilient to habitat change, “so long as there are still fish in the ponds and rats in the field.” Given that commercial ponds produce countless tons of translucent shrimp, it’s hard to blame the opportunistic felines for seeking out farmed fish in the absence of natural prey. Nevertheless, retribution killings are on the rise as many locals consider fishing cats (when they recognize them as such) a nuisance, and even a pest. Giordano points out that ecological studies must now move ahead to look at the “science of conflict”: surveying local people on their views about fishing cats to better understand the nature and intensity of the conflicts between them.

In the village of Sam Roi Yod, Namfon can’t mention the word ‘conservation’ without being tuned away. “People don’t understand why we want to protect the cats instead of humans,” she says. “To the locals, conservation means we are trying to kick them out to save fishing cats. So we try everything we can without using that one word.”

Namfon has taught a team of local research assistants—some less than 10 years old—how to track, trap, and radio-collar fishing cats.

Along the way, she explains the importance of protecting remaining wetlands. The link between the cats and their habitat remains the most important life thread for the species.

Guardians of the Fishing Cats

In the face of local antipathy, Namfon looked for opportunities to recruit a team of unlikely fishing cat guardians. Her greatest strides have come, rather surprisingly, through a number of dinnertime conversations. She realized early on that the first step to understanding fishing cat ecology did not lie in the field, but rather in gaining the trust of villagers whose backyards provided important corridors—and critical sanctuaries—for the nightly movements of the endangered felines.

“The thing you need to know about Namfon is she’s a combination of both a really fierce and gentle soul,” says Heim. “She may be small. She’s just one person. But she has a lot of fight in her—kind of like the fishing cat.”

Over several years, Namfon slowly became integrated into the community of Sam Roi Yod, sharing countless meals with families to gain permission to track individual cats through their property. She built chicken coups to prevent fishing cat predation; she spayed local dogs (the more likely predators of chickens); she provided food for struggling household pets; she even assisted a local resident to the hospital when no one else could. As Namfon built community rapport, she began broaching the subject of fishing cats to teach about their benefits, taking villagers to look at the contents of their scat. Contrary to local belief, fishing cats prefer to dine on rats, not chickens, helping to control pest populations.

“The villagers are more aware of the fishing cat and have developed greater tolerance and pride for having it there,” says Heim, who credits the handyman skills of Ruj (Namfon’s research assistant) and the scouting skills of Lung Eaow (a local fish farmer) in her own camera trapping success while shooting in the field. “Part of why the research is so successful in Sam Roi Yod is the attitude of the people.”

In addition, Namfon has assembled a team of local research assistants, some less than ten years old. She has taught them how to track, trap, and radio-collar fishing cats, sometimes offering some of the most dedicated assistants small stipends. She has trained the team to use radio telemetry and GPS equipment to locate collared cats and record their exact locations, and has also shown some team members how to conduct health checks on sedated fishing cats prior to their release.

Namfon’s colleagues and local families in Sam Roi Yod have given each individual cat its own name. “After tracking individual cats for a while, you develop a bond with them,” she says. “Rip-eared, Khai Toon, Peek Gaa—they all mean something. People always remember the names and ask after those cats. That’s the point.”

Now armed with a robust and growing data set about Thailand’s fishing cats, Namfon has recently shifted her focus toward education, outreach, and collaboration with local schools. Ruj and a local teacher guide students out through the maze of marsh grasses to field sites, teaching about the importance of wetlands and mangroves along the way. The link between fishing cats and their wetland habitat remains the single most important life thread for the species.

Meanwhile, the emboldened fishing cats in Thailand have grown accustomed to the camera traps. Framed by marsh grasses and bolstered by no more than a piece of chicken bait and a chorus of mocking frogs, they frequently trigger camera traps beneath star-studded skies. Each time that shutter clicks and reveals a feline subject, it represents a small, triumphant notch on the side of fishing cats in Thailand’s game of cat and fish.

“If we see on our camera trap that the cat has survived another day,” says Namfon, “it’s a relief. It’s a day to celebrate.”

Morgan Heim

Morgan Heim has been sneezed on by a whale, stampeded by bison, and nearly mistaken for salmon by hungry grizzly bears, all of which she took as great compliments—especially since they let her live to spy on wildlife for another day. Her work has appeared in such outlets as Smithsonian, BBC Wildlife, National Geographic, High Country News, and NPR among others. You can find more of her work at www.morganheim.com.

Katie Jewett

Katie Jewett is a science writer at the California Academy of Sciences, where she loves learning something new every day about our planet. Previously, she spent winters in the Colorado Rockies and summers living and working on the water.

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