Thudugala, A. N., & Ranawana, K. B. (2015). Conservation and monitoring of fishing cats (Prionailurus viverrinus) in the hill country of Sri Lanka. Sciscitator, 2, 22–24.
Mysterious, elusive and the second largest endangered cat in Sri Lanka, the fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus), roams the hill country and wet zone forests of Sri Lanka. Their distribution goes beyond our biodiverse island where they are found in the foothills of the Himalayas, along the Eastern coast of India, the island of Java as well as Pakistan. In appearance, they are adorned with stripes and spot patterns on the head that is unique to their genus, Prionailurus and among the grey and black markings is a deep brick nose, flattened in a most appealing manner to compliment the rest of their patterned face. They are also fairly large for a small wild cat with males weighing around 8 to 14 kg which is almost twice as heavy as females.
As their name suggests, these cats do have a fondness for fish and they are well equipped to get the job of catching them done efficiently. Staying warm takes priority during a fishing expedition and fishing cats have double coated fur that is water resistant, making their beautiful olive and grey coats, also tailored for camouflage, the perfect attire for the job. Every fishing cat needs a set of hooks to complete the task, and for this, their short legs are equipped with semi retractable claws on the rear paws that allows for anchoring when hunting, and fully retractable claws on their fore paws that allow for efficient gripping and scooping of fish out of the water.
Like most wildlife, the fishing cat faces an array of threats which are primarily human induced, such as roadkill, poisoning, hunting, and especially habitat destruction is a major threat to local populations. Conflict with humans due to misconception results in their persecution and being wetland specialists, the loss of their key habitat as a result of degradation puts this species at a higher risk. However, being habitat specialists makes them an excellent focal species for protecting the very environments that are now being lost, the marshy wetlands; that are abundant with the fishing cats’ preferred prey, can be protected by making the fishing cat a focal species for conservation. Fishing cats have earned themselves an almost celebrity status given their charismatic and secretive nature and this unique profile therefore qualifies this cat as a flagship species, however their conflicts with humans are unfortunately earning them a negative reputation.
In order to assess these threats and the population trends of this species, A. N. Thudugala and K. B. Ranawana carried out a study in Gonnaruwa Forest Reserve, Upper Hanthana Forest, and combined this with observations from three districts in the Central Province. Ecology, population trends and threat assessment were carried out using diverse survey methods involving camera trapping, sample collection and a combination of veterinary reviews and in-person interviews. Habitat particular threats were also monitored using vegetation specific mapping software; namely ArcGIS (10.1) and MODIS NDVI.
Education through awareness programs is a key component in species conservation, and the project organized two programs; one targeting school children whose youthful minds and easy ability to influence allowed for a great opportunity to impart such important knowledge and the other, a “Fishing Cat Youth camp” targeting 25 University students who were taught valuable field techniques and given an introduction to general species information to fuel their passion to contribute to the future of wildlife conservation.
On the topic of conservation actions and methodology, to further encourage awareness regarding this endangered species, placement of road signs in high-risk areas is currently underway and will hopefully be spread island-wide with permission from the Road Development Authority which will contribute to minimising roadkill incidents. The results did indicate that from the 28 fishing cat records, the main threats were from roadkill, electric fencing, and poisoning, and Kandy recorded the highest number of roadkill incidents, further stressing the importance for road signs to reduce such occurrences.
Of the thirteen 13 fishing cat scat samples that were collected and and analysed using a hand-picking method, and microscopy, the results revealed their prey to be identified under the Family of shrews and freshwater crabs and the Class of millipedes, as well as order of cockroaches (we can certainly do with fewer cockroaches) and termites! This revealed the fishing cat’s adaptive ability to relying on alternative food sources, when their main source of food – fish – becomes scarce in high altitude streams.
Excitingly, after 1200 trapping hours, it became evident that the fishing cat, as well as its smaller cousin, the rusty-spotted cat (Prionailurus rubiginosus), occur frequently in proximity to peoples’ home gardens and even territorial mark in the same locations to avoid territorial overlap; highlighting the importance that your garden plays in the protection of Sri Lanka’s wildlife!
In conclusion, the main threats faced by the species were human induced, mostly recorded in Kandy due to habitat fragmentation and likely by highway expansion. To mitigate issues such as poisoning and electric fencing, as a result of misconceptions and simple misunderstandings, raising awareness will be the most viable solution to ensuring the future preservation of the fishing cat