This is the second installment in our series meant to shine a light on the 33 species of small wild cats found around the globe. You can read our first blog on the flat-headed cat here.
The fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus) is one of the rarest cats in South and Southeast Asia. Through Panthera’s Small Cat Action Fund (SCAF), we are facilitating an undertaking to study the fishing cat and their conservation concerns across their range. Known for their distinct bark-like sounds and affinity for aquatic environments, we’re attempting to learn more about this slinky feline and how we can encourage their conservation in a landscape of decreasing habitat availability and increasing conflict with humans.
The fishing cat has a muscular body with relatively short legs and a short tail compared to other cats. They have small, rounded ears with a distinctive white spot at the tips. Fishing cats are perfect water cats as their feet are partially webbed and they have large protruding claws used to catch aquatic prey. Their coats come in various shades of grey and brown covered in dark spots. The fishing cat has two recognized subspecies, one covering the entirety of their range, and another endemic to Java, which is likely extinct since it hasn’t been detected for some time now.
Distribution and Habitat:
Fishing cats have a wide distribution throughout South and Southeast Asia, though its range is heavily fragmented. The largest populations are found in Nepal, Northern India, Northeastern and Eastern India, Northeastern Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The species is thought to be extinct in previous range areas like the Indus Valley, Pakistan, Western India, Java and parts of Northwest India. Distributions are patchy throughout Southeast Asia with populations having been recorded in Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos, Burma and Vietnam, but in relatively low numbers.
As they are adapted for aquatic landscapes, fishing cats are associated with wetland habitats like marshes, reedbeds and mangroves. They can also occur in evergreen and dry forests that are closely associated with watered areas like wetlands, lakes or rivers. Occasionally, fishing cats have been spotted in anthropogenic aquatic habitats such as aquaculture ponds, rice paddies, and canals.
Ecology and Behavior:
The fishing cat’s diet mainly consists of aquatic prey including fish, crustaceans, mollusks, amphibians, water-associated reptiles, and semi-aquatic rodents. They do occasionally eat terrestrial prey like hares, civets, birds and insects. They are excellent swimmers and when hunting they use a sit-and-wait technique along the water’s edge. After silently locating their prey, they then pounce. These cats can also fully submerge themselves underwater in search of a meal.
Social behavior, including reproduction habits, in fishing cats is relatively unknown. Information available suggests these cats are solitary with females having smaller ranges that are overlapped by larger male ranges. In captivity, gestation is 63-70 days with litters on average having 1 to 3 kittens. The greatest risks to fishing cats in their natural habitat are large predators like crocodiles and pythons in addition to humans and dogs.
Status and Threats
Fishing cats are currently listed as vulnerable by the IUCN Red List. Up until quite recently, they were considered widespread and common. However, with the rapid conversion of wetlands, floodplains and mangroves due to human development and agriculture, these cats have experienced a significant decline throughout their range. Aquaculture and prawn farms in mangrove and coastal habitats have been particularly damaging. Overfishing and pollution provide additional threats in what habitat remains. Due to heavy landscape modifications within their range and their close proximity to water, there is often human-cat conflict, particularly within fishing communities, inevitably leading to retaliatory killings by humans.
Grantees of our Small Cat Action Fund are currently working on multiple fishing cat projects throughout Asia including addressing the challenges of their conservation and investigating their habitat use in India. In Cambodia, other grantees are studying how to build ranger and community capacity for these felines in mangrove habitats.
An additional study will focus on conservation of the fishing cat in human-dominated landscapes of Nepal while another examines their ecology and behavior in Sri Lanka. Together, we’re hoping to shed light on this elusive species of small cat to understand their biology and ecology so that we can better protect them and the wild places where they live.
*Much of the background information in this blog comes from the book Wild Cats of the World by Luke Hunter (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015).