FISHING CAT

Prionailurus viverrinus
The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016; National Red List 2012 Sri Lanka
  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Mammalia

  • Order: Carnivora
  • Family: Felidae
  • Genus: Prionailurus
  • Species: viverrinus
  • English Name: Fishing Cat
  • Sinhala Name: Handun Diviya
  • Tamil Name: Koddi Poonai
  • Average adult weight: 8-16kg
  • Size comparison: About the size of an adult cocker spaniel
Illustration by Eric Losh

Appearance

The fishing cat is a stocky and powerfully built animal. Its short, coarse fur coat is a beautiful olive grey, tinged with brown and patterned with rows of parallel solid black, oblong spots along its flank. The cat can also be recognised by the four dark lines running along the length of its forehead and along its back, which eventually taper into spots.

The cat’s head is large, with a broad forehead, an elongated muzzle and two stripes that run from its yellowish green eyes, down along the side of its face. Its ears are small and round, and the backs of each ear is black with a prominent white spot in the middle – very much like a tiger’s. Their deep-chested body supports short muscular legs, with the forelegs having two distinct elbow bars, and a white underbelly with black spots and stripes. Unlike most other species, a fishing cat’s tail is less than half its body length, and is thick, with a series of incomplete rings and a solid black tip.

Ever heard of the saying cats hate water? Well, unlike most feline species, a fishing cat is well adapted for a semi-aquatic lifestyle.

One incredible feature they have is the layered structure of their fur, which is an important adaptation to a life in and around water. Right next to its skin lies a thick, dense layer of short hair that prevents water from penetrating through to its skin. Like polar bears, this layer of hair acts as snug-fitting thermal underwear, and keeps the animal both warm and dry even during the coldest of fishing expeditions. Sprouting through this dense coat is yet another layer of long guard hairs which gives the cat its gorgeous glossy pattern, and sheen.

Despite this cat’s well deserved reputation of being a master angler, it shows very little morphological adaptations for capturing or eating fish. Firstly, similar to the flat-headed cat (Prionailurus planiceps) the fishing cat’s claw sheaths are short, making its claws semi-retractable. Secondly, unlike the long and sharp second upper pre-molar of a flat-headed cat, which allows it to grab and hold onto slippery prey, the fishing cat’s tooth is much smaller and less developed. Finally, in the past, one of the most noted characteristics associated with a fishing cat was its webbed feet. However, it has been found that this webbing is not much more developed than that of a Bobcat.

Behaviour and Reproduction

There is little data on the social organisation or mating behaviour of this species in the wild. However, in captivity, the females are assumed to be polyeastrous (able to go into heat several times a year). Fishing cat dens are constructed in thick shrub, reeds, rocky crevices and tree hollows. Two kittens are usually born after a 63-70 day gestation period and weigh around 170 grams each. Kitten eyes open by day 16 and in captivity, meat is introduced into their diet around day 53. The kittens are weaned when they are between 4-6 months old and become independent at 12-18 months. In captivity, fishing cats have been known to live up to 12 years of age.

Fishing cats are solitary animals, and seem to follow the typical felid occupancy pattern, in which several females’ home ranges’ are overlapped by one male’s. Currently, no studies have been done on scent marking patterns and vocal communication between individuals.. However it has been observed that both sexes scent-mark by head and cheek rubbing, and spraying urine. Males and females have been heard making chucking calls and gurgling noises, whereas kittens mew and have birdlike chirrups.

Watch fishing cat kittens
Filmed by Neville Buck
Image by Smithsonian's National Zoo
The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016; Illustration by Anya Ratnayaka

Range

The natural global distribution of the species is unclear, due to many unauthenticated records throughout its range. Though the species is widely distributed in South and Southeast Asia, its patchy distribution throughout most of its range is most likely due to the species’ strong association with wetland habitats, which are few and far between in the region.

Fishing cats have been recorded in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

Population

The species’ global population has declined more than 30% over the past 15 years (three generations) due to fishing cats being killed by local people throughout their range.

It has been estimated that within the next 15 years there will be an irreversible loss of approximately 10% of prime fishing cat habitat in Sri Lanka, 10% of savanna and grassland ecoregions along the Terai-Duar of India and Nepal, and 30% of wetland habitat along the Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta. This coupled with ongoing retaliatory killings will most likely bring the global population down by a further 30% by the year 2032.

Current population trend is decreasingshrinkingdropping
  • Bangladesh

    Fishing cats are relatively safe in the country’s north-eastern swamps and the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans.

  • India and Sri Lanka

    There are small populations of fishing cats in densely human-populated urban areas. The species seems relatively safe in certain protected areas.

  • Myanmar

    The species presence in the Ayeyarwady delta was recently confirmed, though there is no information regarding the population size in the area.

  • Nepal

    Fishing cats have been sighted in the Terai region, along a narrow stretch bounding India.

  • Pakistan

    The population in Pakistan was feared to be extinct. However, recent camera trap records show individuals in the  Chotiari Reservoir in the Sindh Province of Pakistan. There have also been recent records of fishing cats being sold in local markets in Karachi.

  • Thailand

    Fishing cats are highly localised, and recent surveys indicate that the species is restricted to the coastal parts of Central and Southern Thailand.

Illustration by Eric Losh

Habitat and Ecology

Throughout their range, fishing cats are strongly associated with wetlands, marshlands and other habitats that have a good source of flowing water. Most known records of the species within its range are from lowlands. However, in Sri Lanka, fishing cats occur in wetlands in hilly areas as well.

The species is primarily nocturnal, and is a dietary generalist, consuming anything from rodents, to birds and fish. In India’s Howrah district of West Bengal, two species of rodents seem to be a favourite for fishing cats – Rattus rattus and Bandicota bengalensis – both of which are found in abundance in the rapidly urbanised zone. A dietary study conducted in the area suggests that an individual fishing cat eats between 365 and 730 rodents per year.

A radio-telemetry study of four fishing cats in Chitwan National Park in Nepal in 2002, showed that the estimated home ranges of three females was 4-6 km², while a single male had an estimated home range of 16-22 km².

Use and Trade

Fishing cats are often killed for consumption in India, and recent reports from the Howrah district also indicate that there is rampant killing of the species outside protected areas, particularly in human-dominated landscapes. Many of these killings are as a part of cultural practice, and most of these cases go unnoticed, or are ignored unless reported by non-governmental organisations or interested people.

In Cambodia and Thailand, the species is killed by local people for consumption and/or retaliation, such as when the cats damage fishing nets or kill livestock. Poaching is also a serious threat.

There is also an opportunistic trade of fishing cat skins and body parts in Southeast Asia. Some individuals are also seen being sold at Javan live animal markets for the exotic pet trade.

Threats

Fishing cats are at a high risk of extinction throughout their global range, and therefore has been thought to be one of the most vulnerable small wild cat species in South and? Southeast Asia. The biggest threat faced by the species in South Asia is habitat loss and fragmentation caused by development (i.e. urbanization, agriculture and aquaculture), whereas in Southeast Asia, the species is threatened mainly by persecution. Conflict with humans is also a common occurrence when the species preys on livestock and poultry, and as a result, fishing cats are often poisoned, trapped and clubbed to death, across their range.

Though not a common practice, fishing cats are also killed and consumed by locals in some areas of  Southeast Asia.

Conservation

The species is listed under CITES Appendix II, and protected by national legislation throughout most of its range. Hunting fishing cats is prohibited in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam.

In Sri Lanka, the fishing cat is protected in the Fauna and Flora Protection (Amendment) Act, No. 22 of 2009, under Schedule ll, listing the species as a strictly protected mammal.

The species’ survival depends on the protection of the remaining wetland habitats in Asia, and the prevention of trapping, snaring and poisoning. Educating the public about the fishing cat is also of paramount importance, as this species will not survive without the support of the people it interacts with.

For more detailed information, please visit the

IUCN Red List of Threatened Species fishing cat species page

Reference List

Cutter, P., Cutter, P. (2010). Recent sightings of fishing cats in Thailand. Cat News 51: 12–13.

Duckworth, J. W., Poole, C. M., Tizard, R. J., Walston, J. L. and Timmins, R. J. 2005. The Jungle Cat Felis chaus in Indochina: A threatened population of a widespread and adaptable species. Biodiversity and Conservation 14: 1263-1280.

Duckworth, J. W., Stones, T., Tizard, R., Watson, S., and Wolstencroft, J. (2010). Does the fishing cat inhabit Laos?. Cat News 52: 4–7.

Dugan, P. 1993. Wetlands in danger: conservation atlas. Mitchell Beazley and IUCN, London, UK.

Haque, N. M. and Vijayan, V. 1993. Food habits of the fishing cat Felis viverrina in Keoladeo National Park, Bharatpur, Rajasthan. Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society 90: 498-500.

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. & Rahman, H. 2016. Prionailurus viverrinus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T18150A50662615. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-2.RLTS.T18150A50662615.en. 

Nekaris, K. A. I. 2003. Distribution and behaviour of three small wild cats in Sri Lanka. Cat News 38: 30-32.

O’Brien, S. J. and Johnson, W. E. 2007. The evolution of cats. Scientific American July: 68-75.

Phillips, W. 1984. Manual of the Mammals of Sri Lanka. Colombo: Wildlife and Nature Protection Society of Sri Lanka.

Pocock, R. I. (1939). Prionailurus viverrinus Pages 259–264 in: The Fauna of British India, including Ceylon and Burma. Mammalia. – Volume 1. Taylor and Francis, Ltd., London

Sterndale, R. A. (1884). Felis viverrina. In: Natural History of the Mammalia of India and Ceylon. Thacker, Spink, and Co., Calcutta. Pp. 187–188.

Sunquist, M., Sunquist, F. (2002). Wild Cats of the World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 241–245. ISBN 0-226-77999-8.

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