Fighting for the Fishing Cat

Conservationists working to save endangered feline in Nepal struggle to compete for attention with iconic tiger

When Sagar Dahal, a small mammals conservationist, set up camera traps in and around the Jagdishpur Reservoir in southern Nepal in late 2014, he wasn’t sure if his team would record the presence of the fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus) in the area. The team had a hunch that they would find it, but no one had ever collected evidence in the region.

Photo of Fishing CatPhoto by Neville Buck The fishing cat, which has faced rapid loss of habitat, was listed as endangered by the IUCN in 2008.

A reclusive species, not much is known of this small wild cat’s mysterious ways. It receives far less attention from the Nepalese government and large conservation groups than, for example, the Bengal tiger or snow leopard, though all three cats are listed as “endangered” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) National Mammal Red List Index for Nepal. This poses challenges for those working to protect the lesser-known species.

In many parts of Nepal, including the area around the Jagdishpur Reservoir, local communities neither recognise the fishing cat as a species separate from the more popular jungle cat (Felis chaus), nor do they have a distinct name for it. The official Nepali name, mahala biralo, was coined as a direct translation of the English version. (The more popular — and accurate — name, pani biralo, translated as “water cat” is, however, used by locals in some areas.)

Though the adroit British envoy Brian Houghton Hodgson first recorded its presence in Nepal in 1836, little research has been done on the species. Conservationists aren’t sure how many of these animals are left in wild in Nepal — there has never been any official population count. With a head and body length of up to 31 inches, the fishing cat is usually found in and around densely vegetated wetlands. There, it smoothly taps the water — much like an insect — causing ripples that attract fish.

With a diet that also includes snakes, birds, and small mammals, fishing cats often hunt outside protected areas and near human settlements. This makes them vulnerable to being hunted for meat or killed in retaliation for catching fish in streams and poultry on farms.

Yet the gravest threat the fishing cat faces is the rapid and irrevocable loss of its habitat. Degradation and pollution of wetland across South and Southeast Asia, its primary range, has contributed more than anything to its diminutive numbers. Like other species, the loss of natural habitat has forced the fishing cat to be creative in its search for food, pushing it closer and closer to human settlements.

Given this fragmentation and loss of habitat, and estimates that fishing cat populations had declined severely in the previous decade, in 2008 the IUCN classified the fishing cat as “endangered” on the Red List of Threatened Species. But despite the classification, conservationists working with this species found a dearth of interest among government actors, the media, and funding agencies to study and protect the small feline. Without these crucial backers, it became extremely difficult to raise funds to share knowledge and continue work.

So in 2011 a small, international team of conservationists — independent and underfunded — decided to form the Fishing Cat Working Group with the goal of making the fishing cat population viable in its native habitat, including Nepal.

After four years of data collection and knowledge sharing, in early November 2015, this international group gathered in Nepal to develop a conservation strategy for the fishing cat — the first such plan for an Asian small wild cat. When I met Angie Appel, co-founder and coordinator of the working group and Sagar Dahal, also a member of the group, following the meeting, they told me that people in the region and especially in Nepal were interested in wildlife conservation, but that not many people have had the opportunity to learn about the fishing cat.

In fact, because it is not on the Nepalese government’s list of protected species or on the list of “key” or “priority” species for WWF-Nepal — one of the most influential and well-funded environmental organizations in the country — raising funds for research and awareness is a challenge.

WWF-Nepal, for instance, names the Bengal tiger and snow leopard — along with the greater one-horned rhinoceros, Asian elephant, and Ganges river dolphin — “key species.” Conservation of these animals and their habitat get overwhelming support and focus from this organization.

Photo of Fishing CatPhoto by Neville Buck The Fishing Cat Working Group hopes to make fishing cat populations viable throughout its range, including in Nepal.

Yet — according to Simrika Sharma, senior communications officer with WWF-Nepal — even though WWF-Nepal names certain key species, its approach to conservation is not species-driven. Protection of these “umbrella species” and their habitat is meant to have a positive ripple effect on other species — an ecological trickle-down.

Buddi Sagar Poudel, research officer at Nepal’s Department of Forest Research and Survey, who spent six years in the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, tells me that while there has indeed been a shift since the early 2000s from species-specific programs to an ecosystem approach at WWF-Nepal, this plays out quite differently on the ground.

“Given the public consciousness, if a rhino or tiger is killed, there is justifiably [a] great amount of public pressure,” Poudel says. “We even get calls from the ministry to investigate the incident. But if some other species is killed, there is very limited interest. For the government and even these organizations, the focus is on certain species.”

Appel voices a similar concern: “The idea of tiger being an umbrella species for other predators is bogus. This is often an excuse for not investing money and effort in smaller cats. Tigers are generalist predators and find a wide range of prey species inside protected areas. Small cats like fishing cats are specialists; their range of both prey and habitat is more limited.”

Unlike at the national level, WWF-Nepal’s trans-boundary Terai Arc Landscape initiative, which is more regionally focused, does recognize several other species as needing singular attention and active habitat supervision, including swamp deer, blackbuck, great hornbill, among several others. Still, it is the Bengal tiger and the rhino, more than any other species, that get a major chunk of attention (globally and nationally) as well as funds.

The approach may not benefit the fishing cat, but it has benefited tigers. In Nepal, conservation programs like the WWF-led Save Tiger Now, Tiger Forever, and Save the Tiger Fund, among others, have managed to bring the critical dangers faced by tigers into the public consciousness. And the growing number of tigers in Nepal is a testament to the work. After painstaking efforts by concerned organizations, Nepal’s tiger population has made an impressive recovery — there are now 198 tigers in the country. In 2008-2009, the first year for which baseline data is available, there were 121.

Armed with global support, government will, and help from the community, and propelled by a treasure chest of funds, the country is well on its way to achieve the government’s target of doubling the tiger population by 2022.

These gains, combined with that fact that Nepal celebrated zero poaching years for rhinos and tigers several times since 2011, has made the country a poster child for global conservation efforts.

However welcome this success, the attention that charismatic species receive can come at the cost of indifference to others.

“Our excessive focus on some key species has led to a situation where we have excessive knowledge for some and absolutely little or no knowledge of other species,” says Poudel. “For example, even though we know enough about the rhino, we will continue to spend the limited funds we have on programs like collaring the rhino. Why? We already know all about that.”

He suggests instead that Nepal should spend that money on other species. “And this is true not just for the fishing cat but also the pygmy hog, striped hyena, and clouded leopard. With these species, even if we spend a little, we can have a big impact.”

But finding the funds and access to study these less-charismatic species is not easy. The global reach of organizations like the WWF is something conservationists working with non-key species find difficult to compete with.

According to Poudel, the influence these large organizations wield often stems from the fact that the government lags behind in terms of research capability and expertise. Poudel adds that international organizations also provide funds to the Nepal government through individual grants to officers in the government, as well as to independent researchers, affording them influence over what areas and species get studied and in what capability.

Seen in terms of funding, the disparity is tremendous. For instance, the Global Tiger Recovery Program, a collaborative program involving the 13 Tiger Range Countries, with which the Nepalese government is directly involved, estimated that implementation of its tiger conservation program would require $17.8 million between 2010 and 2015. And in 2013, Hollywood actor Leonardo Di Caprio donated $3 million to WWF specifically for tiger conservation efforts in Nepal, adding to the millions already pledged to the cause. In contrast, according to the records of the Fishing Cat Working Group, conservation and research for fishing cats in India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Cambodia together received around $96,000 in total between 2010 and 2015, a fraction of the amount pledged annually for tigers.

The situation in India, Nepal’s larger neighbour and partner in protecting tigers, is equally skewed. In 2012-2013, the Indian government allocated approximately $63 million for wildlife conservation, of which Project Tiger, the Indian Government’s tiger conservation program, received $31 million — this in a country where there are 139 species are recognized by the IUCN as critically endangered.

Given this disparity in funding between priority and non-priority species, many researchers working on the latter complain about the limited access to funds and indifference on the part of funding agencies. Funding imbalances also impacts how young researchers choose their field of study, which can further limit knowledge generation regarding lesser-known species.

At the fishing cat symposium in Nepal last November, it was decided that it was time for researchers and scientist to think about marketing strategies.

“How do we expect people to support fishing cat conservation if they do not even know what a fishing cat is, and therefore, what impact they are having on the cat, especially people in range countries?” Appel says. “And how do we gain support from non-range countries about a cat that lives on the other side of the planet?”

The group is considering an educational campaign to raise awareness about fishing cats, and is developing a children’s’ book that focuses on the natural habitat and conservation of the feline, along with other efforts to introduce young people to the endangered species.

Another priority focus for the group is improving the social media presence of the species and highlighting existing conservation projects and progress throughout the cats range.
A significant part of conservation strategy for the fishing cat is now about public relations — ironically, conservationist working with less-charismatic species are being forced to emulate the marketing strategies that have been so successful for the tiger and elephant.

But Appel insists, “There is no alternative to marketing. We need the funds for research. The organizations working with the Big Cats are really good [at] marketing, we are trying to catch up.”

Dahal’s 2014 research was pioneering not only because he confirmed the presence of fishing cats in the Jagdishpur Reservoir, but also because he recorded the presence of this animal outside of protected areas — fuelling possibilities for further research and knowledge collection about how fishing cats’ are responding to their changing habitat.

“I am now going to further this research and look for the presence of fishing cat in other wetland areas in Nepal,” Dahal says. “My next project is to study its presence at the bank of Sunsari river,” in eastern Nepal.

He adds, “If we have the access and the funds there is so much we can do, and there is so much that can be done.”

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