Human - Fishing Cat Conflict Is On Rise - Chaminda Jayasekara

The Sinhala name Handun Diviya of Fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus) makes many scary that `Diviya’ is Leopard. Thus many village folks fear that they are like Leopards, and a threat to them, says researcher cum conservationist Chaminda Jayasekara.

With the ongoing Leopard-human issue in some parts of the hill country, Fishing cats too being targeted and killed, he says. “In most parts of Nawalpapitiya, children refuse to go out when they were informed that Handun Diviyas were found in the vicinity,” Chaminda told Earthlanka.
The Fishing Cat, an elusive feline in the Wetlands, suffer mostly in the dry zone when they enter into poultry farms or roam in the vicinity. “Killing by poison is common especially in areas where poultry houses were located. Poisoning is considered as one of the biggest threats apart from road accidents even in Sigiriya. Like Leopard is marketed when it comes to tourism promotion, Fishing cats and other cat species too would be promoted especially by promoting awareness programmes.
There is also information that Fishing cats are killed to treat asthmatic patients. Chaminda who is also the Assistant Manager of Jetwing Vil Uyana, says they created 28 acres for the betterment fishing cats with two lakes made and trees were planted. Within last year seven young cubs were sighted, he says. Unlike, other cat species Fishing cats prefer an area close to water. “They don’t mingle with domestic cats as the Jungle cats do. When encountered they would kill domestic cats,” he added.
Of the 40 species of wild cats in the world four can be seen in Sri Lanka and three of them are considered as small cats. Apart from the magnificent leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya) Sri Lanka is also home to three of its smaller, but equally threatened, cousins. The fishing cat, jungle cat (Felis chaus) and rusty-spotted cat (Prionailurus rubiginosus) are all found in the wetlands and jungles around the island. Their secretive, elusive nature, smaller size and often nocturnal habits have led to these small cats flying under the radar. The fishing cat is a small to medium sized feline, found in most of countries in South and South East Asia. Gets its Latin name because of its viverrine or civet like appearance. They are larger than the domestic cats. The fishing cats are one of the most elusive small cat species in the world, as well as in Sri Lanka and also a threatened species due to the habitat destruction. Unlike the other cat species fishing cats love to be in the water and wetlands and are good swimmers and tree climbers.
The size of a fully grown fishing cat is 57 to 85cm in length, with a 25 to 30cm tail. Weight is varied from 6 to 12 kilo-grammes. The males are slightly bigger than the females. As they are solitary creatures, males and females come together mostly for mating.
Globally the fishing cat is classified as “Vulnerable” in the IUCN Red List and in Sri Lanka, nationally, it is considered as “Endangered”. They can be found in Sri Lanka, Nepal, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia. It has a stocky and powerful body that is quite long in comparison to its short legs. Their short and coarse coat of fur is olive grey to ashy grey and patterned with solid black spots that run the length of its body and often turn in to black lines along the spine.
Fishing cats are strongly associated with wetlands. They live typically near water and where thick vegetation is available. Also they are not common around fast moving water bodies and deep water bodies. This is one of the unique habitat adaptations of the fishing cats, because unlike the other wild cat species in the world the fishing cats spend most of their life close to the water hunting and are well adapted for an aquatic life.
They are recorded here in the habitats like forests, shrubs, grasslands, reed beds, lakes, river, wetlands, paddy fields etc. Fishing cats are territorial, living and hunting solitarily. The males territory is bigger than the female’s territory. But the territory is wholly dependent on the type of habitat and food availability. The size of the territory also varies due the climatic conditions. Especially during the dry season as most of the water reserves in dry zone become drier,  they have to expand their territories for their survival. During the rainy season as they have plenty of food in a small area they do not expand their territories much. Both females and males overlap their territories.
Mostly within the dry zone area of the country they have suitable habitat and enough food because the dry zone of the country is rich with wetland areas including the man made lakes, canals and paddy fields. Both males and females mark their territories by  cheek rubbing, head rubbing, neck rubbing, chin rubbing and spraying urine. The reason for rubbing is that cats have a lot of scent glands around their head, chin, neck and cheeks. These scent glands are activated when cats bunt against things and use this way to mark the territory. They often use same paths when they are moving from one area to the other area.
They are carnivorous, as per the name of this feline, their main food is fish. They also prey on frogs, snakes, rats and also the nocturnal birds like night herons. They use different techniques to catch fish. They have been observed hunting along the edges of the water courses. Once the fish has been spotted they jump in to the water and catch it using their paws. Also sometimes they stay in shallow water areas and catch its prey.
When they are staying at the edge of the water they slightly tap the surface of the water by using the paw to imitate a struggling insect to attract the fish to the place where it tapped. When the fish is close enough, it quickly jumps into water and catches the fish, dragging it to the ground, reeds or dense area. Their gestation period is nearly 70 days time and they give birth to one to four kittens at a time. Babies  are blind at birth and the first few weeks the babies stay with their mother and staying in more dense vegetation areas.
One of the fast growing threats for fishing cat is road accidents, occurring mostly in remote areas and even close to some city areas as well. Most of the roads are carpeted and well developed after the war period here. Therefore, most of the vehicles drive fast. Some roads are close to paddy fields, wetlands, and lakes. So there are many occasions that the fishing cats are forced to cross main roads when they hunt. This is the major threat for all three small cat species in Sri Lanka.
Wetland destruction is a yet another threat faced by the fishing cats.  Many of the wetland areas in the country are being degraded due to human activities. The pollution of the waterways in most of the areas in the country, especially in urbanized areas has become a major problem for this species. Due to this reason most  of the waterways are with polluted with plastic, polythene and also with industrial waste. Even the wetlands in the rural areas also are being degraded due  to the high usage of chemicals for agricultural purposes.
The killing of fishing cats take place primarily because some people assume that fishing cats as a  harmful animal for them and  most of the areas in the country many of these cats are misidentified as leopard cubs. This happens especially in the tea plantation area due to the lack of knowledge on this species.  It has been recorded that the fishing cats kill domestic animals, especially domestic fowls. Due to this reason fishing cats are highly threatened with some people lay traps  and electric fences for them, resulting in the death of these
Falling to agricultural wells when they go for water and food during the dry season in the dry zone area is yet another threat. In such incidents the villagers may try to rescue them or inform it to the Department of Wildlife Conservation to get their help. They are also facing the habitat loss issue. Now most of the wetlands are under threat due to human activities especially for agricultural purpose and the development projects. In urbanized areas the numbers of the fishing cat population is decreasing due to the urbanization and the unsustainable development projects.