For more than a decade, wildlife biologist Tiasa Adhia has spent much of the day (and night) in a small wooden boat, slipping silently through the dense vegetation of the wetlands and mangroves of West Bengal, examining banks for signs of a wildcat rarely seen – the hunting cat. (Prionailurus viverrinus).
“Hunting cats are wonderful animals,” she says. They have inhabited river deltas and floodplains alongside humans for centuries. Ancient cultures like the Khmer Empire show evidence of cat hunting. ” As the co-founder of the world’s longest-running research project for hunting and conservation cats, Kolkata-based Adhya is dedicated to this endangered species of cats, and they are one of the fewest wild cats Study and understanding.
“When we started our business in 2010, very little was known about these cats, both to us and to the local communities,” says Adhya of the Fishing Cat Project (TFCP). Today, the species is slightly better understood and appreciated, although it still gets far less attention than its larger, more attractive cousins.
A study of kittens in November found that “many of the rare and elusive kittens in the Indian subcontinent do not receive as much attention as the more adorable big cats. However, the need to protect them is urgent.” The study, conducted by the Swedish Uppsala University, found only 6–11% of regions where three rare species of cats – including the hunting cat – were protected in their environment.
Bugs are an elusive hunting cat, on the shores of Lake Chilika, in Odisha, India.
Bugs are an elusive hunting cat, on the shores of Lake Chilika, in Odisha, India. Photography: Partha Day
A medium-sized muscular cat, about twice the size of the family, the hunting cat has adapted to a semi-aquatic lifestyle. It hunts from the water’s edge, either catching fish with its tentacles or diving into shallow water.
“The hunting cat has evolved into the top predator in its habitat,” says Adhya. “She has half-retractable claws that help her catch fish, while her partially clawed feet enable her to grasp firmly in muddy terrain. It also has a waterproof coat, rudder-like tail and other modifications that help her swim effortlessly.”
In 2020, catfish scientists, researchers and conservationists from around the world gathered to form the Fishing Conservation Alliance. The non-profit organization announced the month of February in February of February of February of February of February of February of February to catch cats, in order to raise awareness of mammals and support conservation efforts.
Currently, there are no population numbers at the national or global level, but the hunting cat has been named in the IUCN Red List as vulnerable, with their numbers diminishing due to multiple threats.
In India, the hunting cat is listed under the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 and receives the same level of legal protection as the tiger, elephant and other threatened animals. However, more than 90% of a cat’s range lies outside of protected areas and negative interactions are inevitable in a human-dominated landscape.
Once children get excited about preserving the environment, it becomes easy to get the whole family involved
The Adhya project focuses on the conservation of hunting cats in the wetlands and mangrove forests of West Bengal and Odisha, the states along the eastern coast of India that make up a large part of the country’s species distribution range. In West Bengal, the cat is known as Matabaga (Bengali tiger fish).
To create awareness about the seniors, TFCP has initiated several conservation projects in the local community. “After the hunting cat was declared a government animal in West Bengal in 2012, we have worked to instill a sense of pride and ownership in people,” says Adhya.
Tiasa Adhya, zoologist and cat specialist, in Chilika Lake, West Bengal.
Tiasa Adhya, zoologist and cat specialist, in Chilika Lake, West Bengal. Photo: Courtesy of Tiasa Adhya / The Fishing Cat Project
As part of a program called Know Thy Neighbors in 2017, camera traps were installed in the backyards of village homes in areas known to frequently catch cats. Camera shots were shown to villagers and they learned to recognize individual cats that visit their homes based on their body signs. They were encouraged to name the cat, which prompted the villagers, especially the children, to develop a relationship with their visitors. “Once the children get excited about preserving the environment, it becomes easy to involve the whole family. Today, the villagers are the eyes and ears of our restoration work,” Adia says.
Parago Behera, a fisherman from Soran village on the edge of Lake Chilika in Odisha, helped set up four camera traps in his neighborhood in 2017. “Before the cameras were taken, we had no idea that hunting cats were visiting our village. Now I noticed many individuals. . I named my favorite hunting cat, Raja [king], “he says.
A camera trap installed in an area of Chilika that is known to frequent fishing.
A camera trap installed in an area of Chilika that is known to frequent fishing. Photography: Partha Day
Despite their preference for fish, hunting cats have a varied diet. It has been recorded to consume mollusks, crabs, frogs, snakes, and birds. They are also known to eat chickens and young goats from people’s yards.
When protecting the main predator in the habitat, in this case the hunting cat, we end up protecting the entire ecosystem
To reduce the number of reprisal attacks against hunting cats caused by livestock looting, TFCP supports the Community Goat Bank Project in Howrah District, West Bengal. It was launched in 2017 at the suggestion of local NGO Sarada Prasad Tirtha Janakalyan Samity (SPTJS). 38 families were given each with a pregnant female goat, on the basis that one child from the litter would be donated to the goat bank.
On average, a community loses five to six goats a year to hunting cats. Upon recording an incident, the affected family receives a replacement animal from the goat bank, a project entirely run by the villagers themselves. “For the villagers, the substitute goat is not like the beloved animal they just lost,” says Joydeep Pradhan, head of SPTJS. “But at least now, they weren’t feeling upset.”
However, the biggest threat to a hunting cat is the degradation and loss of their habitats. “In the past two decades, more than 50% of the flood plains in the Ganges River have been lost due to urbanization, infrastructure projects, industries and aquaculture,” says Adhya.
The situation is not much different in the other nine countries across South and Southeast Asia where records show a catfish presence. These countries are signatories to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, but the annual habitat is still under threat.
“Wetlands are highly productive, rich ecosystems capable of supporting diverse life forms. We are actively working with government authorities, forest officials and policymakers to ensure their protection,” says Adhya.
“Wetlands are not only water reservoirs. They also function as nutrient traps and carbon sinks, and they are essential to combat climate change.”
Photo of a hunting cat in Chilika, Odisha. Photo captured by camera trap.
Photo of a hunting cat in Chilika, Odisha. Photo captured by camera trap. Photo: Courtesy of The Fishing Cat Project
Last October, Chileka – the world’s second largest coastal lake – adopted a fishing cat as its ambassador. “When we work to protect the main predator in the habitat, in this case the hunting cat, we end up protecting the entire ecosystem,” says Suzanta Nanda, chief executive of the Chilica Development Authority (CDA).
In collaboration with TFCP and volunteers from the community, the CDA will soon install 100 camera traps across the lake to help identify hunting cat populations and improve protection for this unknown creature.
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