Conservation news

Endangered fishing cat thought extinct in Cambodia, caught on camera

Fishing cat photographed by a camera trap in Peam Krasop Wildlife Sanctuary. Photo courtesy of Fauna & Flora International/Royal University of Phnom Penh.

  • Cambodian scientists were tipped off by local villagers of the fishing cat’s whereabouts, and set camera traps to capture their movements.
  • The rare cats were photographed in the Peam Krosaop Wildlife Sanctuary in Koh Knong Province, and in Ream National Park in Sihanoukville Province.
  • Scientists have launched a conservation action plan that includes new fishing cat research, community education, and threat reduction measures.

Asia’s Endangered fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus) went missing in 2003, and was thought to be extinct in that nation. That’s why researchers were so delighted when the fishing cat showed up recently in candid shots snapped by their camera traps in two Cambodian preserves.

The sightings were made in a recent camera trap survey conducted by Cambodia’s Centre for Biodiversity Conservation (CBC) in partnership with Fauna & Flora International (FFI), and the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP).

Fishing cat photographed by a camera trap in Peam Krasop Wildlife Sanctuary. Photo courtesy of Fauna & Flora International/Royal University of Phnom Penh.

FFI project leader Ret Thaung said that the fishing cat’s preference for wetland habitat — and the degradation of that habitat by agriculture and other development — had led to severe population declines throughout much of its range.

“Asian wetland habitats are rapidly disappearing or being modified by human activity, so fishing cat numbers have declined dramatically over the last decade and the remaining population is thought to be small,” she said.

Interviews with local Cambodian villagers led the researchers to believe that the fishing cat might still be found in southwest Cambodia. So they set out 32 cameras at five locations and waited.

Sifting through the gathered images, the scientists were thrilled to find pictures of the fishing cat snapped in the Peam Krosaop Wildlife Sanctuary in Koh Knong Province, and in Ream National Park in Sihanoukville Province.

“This is a remarkable discovery,” said Thaung. “We are especially pleased to see both a male and female cat from Peam Krosaop Wildlife Sanctuary.” That discovery suggests there is a breeding population within this already protected area.

Other threatened species were captured on camera, including the Critically Endangered Sunda pangolin, Endangered hog deer, and the Vulnerable smooth-coated otter, along with the large-spotted civit and sambar deer. All of these species are in urgent need of protection, said Thaung, as mangrove and freshwater wetland habitats quickly vanish.

The new photos inspired the CBC and its partners to swing immediately into action to create a fishing cat conservation action plan focused on the two Cambodian preserves. These plans focus on community and local ranger education, along with threat reduction measures. Scientific research will also be stepped up.

Ret Thaung, standing, and Kam Thorn, a ranger from the Cambodian Ministry of Environment, setting up a camera trap at Botum Sakor National Park. Photo by Vanessa Herranz Muñoz courtesy of Fauna & Flora International

The animals are most threatened by hunters who kill the animals for meat, or in retaliation for damaging fishing nets. The researchers hope to instill villagers with an understanding of the need to conserve the rare cats — valuing them more as a living asset, rather than a next meal.

The conservationists were discouraged not to find the fishing cat in a third preserve, where they had hoped it would be. “Unfortunately, no cats were found in the freshwater wetlands at the Botum Sakor National Park,” said Thaung. The area around the park has been devastated by deforest and land degradation.

Researchers agree that they have much to learn about these elusive Asian cats if they are to be rescued from extinction. However, most funding continues to go to conserving big cats, rather than Asia’s nine small-to-medium sized cats. The reinvigorated interest in the fishing cat in Cambodia may help begin to change that.