Conservation news

Rare fishing cat photographed in Cambodia

  • One researcher spotted a young fishing cat in the sanctuary in broad daylight, suggesting the population may not be under heavy pressure.
  • Globally, the cat’s numbers have plummeted by over 30 percent in the last 15 years, putting the species at high risk of extinction.
  • Research on the fishing cat began only in 2009, but it is already believed to be extinct in Vietnam; meanwhile, there are no confirmed records in Laos PDR and scarce information from Myanmar, Thailand, and Cambodia.
  • This article is a news analysis by a non-Mongabay writer. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

Clinging on to rapidly disappearing Asian wetlands, the fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus) is at high risk of extinction.

The cat is believed extinct in Vietnam; meanwhile, there are no confirmed records in Laos PDR and scarce information from Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia. A recent extensive survey for fishing cats on Java came up empty-handed, prompting fears that the species is slinking out of existence in Southeast Asia.

But things in the region may be looking up for the water-loving, medium-sized wild feline. A survey has confirmed that a population survives in southwest Cambodia’s Peam Krasop Wildlife Sanctuary (PKWS) — one of only two locations in Cambodia where the fishing cat has been recorded since 2003.

Last February, researchers from the Kla Trey | Cambodian Fishing Cat Project placed over 30 camera traps in key mangrove habitat as part of the region’s first conservation project dedicated to the species.

“This is a first glimpse of the fishing cat population in PKWS,” Cambodian Fishing Cat Project leader Vanessa Herranz Muñoz said in a statement, “but our preliminary findings are very promising.”

The results provide the first images of fishing cats in Cambodia since a brief survey in 2015 turned up the first evidence of the species in over a decade: three fishing cats at two coastal sites with no previous records. Two of those individuals were in PKWS, and were later identified as a male and a female.

Camera trap photo of a fishing cat in Cambodia. Photo by Kla Trey | Cambodian Fishing Cat Project.

Camera traps have recently revealed that these two cats are still present, with the female “showing us a fascinating display of the intimate life of fishing cats in the wild, possibly in response to marks left by the male,” Herranz Muñoz said.

“Good news”

“The recapture of the fishing cats after two years is good news,” Dr. Jan F. Kamler, Southeast Asia Leopard Program Coordinator for global wild cat conservation organization Panthera, said via email, “as it indicates that snaring could not have been high in that area.”

A new individual yet to be identified was also photographed slinking over mangrove roots in the distance, highlighting the scarcity of dry land in this frequently inundated habitat.

In a recorded first for Cambodia, researcher Sarady Moul spotted a fishing cat in broad daylight, while en route to check camera-traps along a narrow channel. “I was so surprised that I almost jumped out of the boat,” he said. “At around 8:45am, I saw it peering out of the mangrove roots – I never expected to see one at that time.”

Scrambling to take a photo, Moul asked the boat driver to move closer, prompting the cat to turn tail and vanish into the mangroves. “Seeing a fishing cat in the wild was incredible,” Moul said of the experience.

“My hypothesis is that the young cat may have been looking for a site to swim across the channel and disperse to other islets,” Herranz Muñoz added. “Fishing cats are known to be nocturnal – seeing the individual in the morning may be explained by the tide being at its lowest point at that time, making the shore accessible.”

Moul deployed a camera-trap as close to the site as possible. “We are hugely excited by the prospect of our camera-traps capturing a fishing cat swimming in the wild,” Herranz Muñoz said. This would be a global first for fishing cat research.

At 100 meters across, the channel is one of the narrowest in the area and carries a lot of boat traffic. “Sightings like this are very rare and would be highly unlikely if the population were under heavy pressure,” Herranz Muñoz noted.

A small cat facing big threats

In the past, fishing cats in the region have not been so lucky. Back in 2014, in an interview with Mongabay on Southeast Asia’s smaller cats, experts from the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Cat Specialist Group declared the fishing cat in need of immediate research and attention due to its “rarity and levels of threat faced.”

According to the IUCN Red List assessment, the cat’s numbers globally have declined by over 30 percent in the last 15 years, but nowhere is the rate more alarming than in Southeast Asia, where the greatest threat to the cat’s survival is human persecution.

In 2015, killings of fishing cats in PKWS in retaliation for damaging fishers’ nets was identified as a major threat to the population, but fishers’ focus has now shifted to crabs, and “people have no will to hunt or kill fishing cats because there is no perceived conflict,” Community Officer Sothearan Thi said after recent interviews with villagers.

Communities report that hunting in the area is infrequent, thus fishing cats in PKWS may be relatively safe from the snaring crisis that is sweeping Asian forests, according to a group of scientists writing recently in Science. Panthera’s Kamler describes snares as “a major issue for most wildlife in Cambodia and other areas of Southeast Asia.”

What’s more, villagers welcome measures to mitigate future human-fishing cat conflict. Herranz Muñoz sees this as a very positive sign and is hopeful that “together we can ensure that fishing cats persist in the Cambodian mangroves.”

In order to further reduce threats to the population, Kla Trey has teamed up with the country’s leading organization for direct protection of threatened habitat and species, Wildlife Alliance. In February, their mobile environmental education unit conducted awareness raising workshops alongside Kla Trey staff.

The two organizations will work closely to promote the “importance of coastal zone conservation in the Cardamom Landscape — something for which the fishing cat is an important flagship,” Dr. Thomas Gray, director of science and global development for Wildlife Alliance, told Cambodian press in January. He and Herranz Muñoz have since provided training to rangers in neighboring Botum Sakor National Park on camera-trapping fishing cats to further research their distribution within the Cardamom Landscape.

One of the last strongholds for fishing cat in Southeast Asia?

“We’re seeing a southern and southeast Asian cat become strictly a South Asian cat because of habitat loss, poaching and retaliatory killing,” Jim Sanderson, manager of Global Wildlife Conservation’s Small Wild Cat Conservation Program, said in a blog post. Fishing cats are listed as one of the most vulnerable of the small and medium sized cats in Southeast Asia according to the IUCN.

Across the species’ range, Sanderson continued, “the replacement of coastal mangroves with industrial fish and shrimp farms has caused a massive loss of prey and habitat.” Today such farms are absent from PKWS, with much of the mangrove restored.

“Finding fishing cats in intact mangrove is great news for fishing cats and adds another reason to protect the mangroves,” Sanderson added via email.

Management zoning of the protected area — approved in 2011 — is seen as an important pilot for the rest of the country. Furthermore, 60 percent of PKWS falls within the Koh Kapik and Associated Islets Ramsar Site. However, numerous threats are still present and as Sanderson points out, “constant vigilance is warranted.”

One thing’s for sure: PKWS holds one of the largest and densest area of mangroves in the region, and may be one of the last strongholds for fishing cats in Southeast Asia.

While zero records from Java was disheartening, “by calling attention to the rarity of fishing cats… heroic efforts can be made to locate [and] save them in places they still exist,” Sanderson said. “We must not let them slip away without trying.”

Camera trap photo of fishing cat in Cambodia. Photo by Kla Trey | Cambodian Fishing Cat Project.

CITATIONS

Claire B. Munton specializes in writing about environmental and rural livelihood issues in Southeast Asia. Based in Cambodia, she is Communications Officer for the Kla Trey | Cambodian Fishing Cat Project and works in-house for Master Media co. ltd.

The survey was conducted by the Kla Trey | Cambodian Fishing cat Project in collaboration with the Cambodia-based Centre for Biodiversity Conservation with support from global wild cat conservation organization Panthera, the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund and Denver Zoo.

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