The fishing cat, Prionailurus viverrinus, is a highly elusive wild cat species found primarily in wetland and mangrove habitats with some populations in Sri Lanka having even been recorded in highly urbanised landscapes and montane forests. They are classified as Vulnerable under the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and Endangered within their range countries. Unlike most felines, fishing cats love water and are known for their expert hunting skills in aquatic habitats. Habitat loss and fragmentation, conflict with humans over poultry and livestock, as well as the demand for bushmeat and trade for captive wildlife are causing fishing cat populations to decline.
This unique species of wild cat is found distributed in patches across South and Southeast Asia. This is likely due to where wetland habitats can be found, although many questions have yet to be answered about the true global distribution of the fishing cat. Records of their presence in some regions need to be authenticated. Confirmed records show fishing cat populations to be present in Sri Lanka, India, Nepal, Cambodia, Thailand, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar.
Fishing cats are stocky with a powerful build. They have a large neck and head, short muscular legs and a deep chest. Weighing between 7 to 16 kg, they are the largest of the Prionailurus genus. The tail of the fishing cat is unusually short, about half the length of the body, and is used as a rudder while swimming. They have short, rounded ears and large eyes set close to each other. While diving underwater for prey, fishing cats are known to fold down their ears, creating a plug to prevent water from entering. This species is characterised by olive-gray fur tinged with brown with rows of parallel oblong black spots along the flank and a white underbelly. Because of their spot pattern, fishing cats are commonly feared and killed as they are mistaken for little leopards. Six to eight dark lines run from the forehead, down the neck to the back where they taper into spots. These lines are routinely used to distinguish young fishing cats from leopard cats, as they can look very similar, when analysing camera trap data and other images. Their underbelly is white with black stripes and spots.
Like some other felids, fishing cats have black elbow bars on their forelimbs as well as white patches, or ocelli, on the backs of their ears. They have two layers of fur, a dense undercoat which keeps the cat warm and dry while swimming and a second layer made up of long guard hairs that is responsible for coat colour and spot pattern. Like cheetahs, fishing cats have semi-retractable claws on their hind paws, particularly useful for aid in firmly anchoring to muddy banks while grabbing fish out of the water. Although they do have webbed back feet, research has shown it to be not much more developed than that of a bobcat.
Habitat and Ecology
Across its range, the fishing cat is found to be highly associated with wetland habitats, mangroves, marshlands, rivers and streams. Although their diet is primarily of fish, they are considered generalists, preying also on rodents and birds. Fishing cats will also take domestic animals including poultry, goats as well as fish from private ponds. Fish hunting behaviour is usually displayed by standing on the water’s edge and scooping out prey with a paw or two. They are also known to dive down into the water to snatch their meal. It has also been recorded “tapping” behaviour on the water’s surface to mimic an insect, luring fish closer within reach. A radio-telemetry study* of four fishing cats in Chitwan National Park in Nepal in 2002, showed that the estimated home ranges of three females was 4-6 km², while a single male had an estimated home range of 16-22 km².
*Sunquist, M., Sunquist, F. (2002). Wild Cats of the World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 241–245. ISBN 0-226-77999-8.
The fishing cat is protected by national legislation in most of its range and is listed under CITES Appendix II, but it is not enough. This water loving feline is a unique species, unlike any other of the 40 species of wild cats and are representation of a remarkably biodiverse ecosystem. By working to protect fishing cat habitat, numerous species of flora and fauna are also protected. Trapping, snaring and poisoning must stop, tension from conflict must cease, wetland habitat must be protected and maintain integrity and without education and community involvement, all of the above are nearly impossible.
Snared fishing cat rescued by the Save Fishing Cat Conservation Project Team in 2015. Location: Kandy, Sri Lanka.
Smile for the Camera!
This is the first camera trap image of a fishing cat in India and probably, the world!
These images are from a time when infra-red camera traps were yet to be discovered. This set-up had to be designed so that the cat steps on an object which would trigger the camera to flash and take the shot. An expedition in early 1980s to document the presence of this elusive cat from the Sundarbans led by Kushal Mukherjee and team Prakriti Samsad.
Text and image from The Fishing Cat Project, India.