What do you do?

The mangroves of Sundarban are known to be home to one of the most popular wild cats of India- the Royal Bengal Tiger. But there is another wild cat that lives in the same marshy land which sadly does not enjoy the same repute as the tiger, but is a fantastic animal none the less. We are talking about the Fishing cat, a feline much like the domestic cat in appearance but twice the size and with a more masculine body. Naturalist Tiasa Adhya has committed herself to study this particular animal hoping that her research gives voice to an endangered wild cat that not many know about.

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The fishing cat is a nocturnal animal and owing to its preference of a wetland habitat, is not an easy animal to trace. But that is the challenge that Tiasa has taken willingly because she feels that these lesser known species need to be highlighted just like their more popular cousins.

India’s Endangered spoke to this dynamic woman naturalist and here is what she had to say about her work on the beautiful and elusive Fishing Cats of India,

Tell us in brief about yourself: 

Really do not have much to say. I love knowing about lesser known and lesser studied species and believe that knowing the biology of such species will help me in conserving these. Right now, I am doing my master’s in Wildlife Biology and Conservation at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Bangalore.

I completed my bachelor’s in Zoology from the Calcutta University (2005-2008). After that, I joined a non-government organisation in Kolkata and worked in the Sundarbans for four years and in some parts of North Bengal. But there was too much alternative livelihood and plantation work that I was taking part in during this period which was quite taxing for me because I was badly looking to learn about “wildlife”.

But the tiger census in the Sundarbans in 2010 was a turning point. Not because I saw the tiger but because I saw the pugmarks of a lesser known felid – the FISHING CAT. I remember coming back home and talking about this to my partner, who is also my best friend, my best guide and my philosopher. That evening, when I sat by the internet, it was almost uncanny how I found the link to WWF Small Grants Program. I applied. It was the first year of this program and I was lucky to be selected. I set out to document the distribution and conservation threats of this cat in West Bengal, outside protected areas.

After this, I got a lucky break again, when I was selected into the Master’s program in NCBS. By the end of the course, I understood its value – it was a good attempt to open our eyes to the thoughts and techniques that form the essence of wildlife biology and conservation.

The concept of niche was always interesting to me, even though we are more and more aware that niche lies somewhere in the middle of a continuum with neutrality. Where do animals occur? How do they co-occur? I got to answer these questions through studying the species of my interest – the Fishing cat and the Jungle cat.

Tell us about your work on Fishing Cats of India.

I started working on the Fishing cats with a small grant from WWF, India, outside protected areas in West Bengal, in Howrah district, in 2010.

Fishing cats were never documented from these human dominated landscapes in the past.

Our work involved proving the existence of Fishing cats in these landscapes through DNA analysis from scats and camera trapping. We documented the threats to the cats from these landscapes. We also give importance to spreading education and awareness about the cats among the community. Not only that, we also try to create interest towards the cat amongst politicians and policymakers.

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and fascinating career?

I mainly got interested in this beautiful small cat after taking part in the tiger census in the Sunderbans. There I saw my first Fishing cat pugmarks. Upon coming back home, I enquired more about the cat. No ecological data on the cat was available. Only one girl called Namfon Cutter was working on the cat in Thailand and that too in Protected Areas. After some days a newspaper report appeared in newspapers in which the picture of a dead Fishing cat appeared. Apparently, the cat was killed by villagers in a village in Howrah. This instigated me to write up a project proposal for studying the cats in the human dominated landscapes of Howrah. Inspiration and ideas from a very close friend, Partha Dey, also gave me the much needed motivation.

What are the challenges you face related to your field work? Do share the experience.

There are many such challenges, including not being able to locate a Fishing cat population for the first 6 months. Our work required us to stay out at nights in the field and that was often a problem. But leaving these personal problems aside, it is an ongoing challenge for a conservationist to try and conserve endangered species outside protected areas in human dominated landscapes. Often there is clash between development and conservation and I do not think it is at all easy or even possible sometimes to reconcile the differences.

It is an ongoing challenge for a conservationist to try and conserve endangered species outside protected areas in human dominated landscapes.

What about funding and resources?

I am looking for more funds after continuing my work. Without funding and giving stipends for volunteering, long term conservation plans cannot be made.

Fishing Cats are a lesser known species. How similar or dissimilar is it from the domestic cat?

Fishing cats are elusive, nocturnal, medium sized felids found in the marshes and swamps of South and South East Asia. Females weigh around 8 – 10 kilograms and males weigh around 10 – 15 kilograms. Their coat is of an earthy brown colour with 4 – 6 black stripes running down from its head to its shoulders and then breaking down into longitudinal spots along the entire body.

The cat is a wetland specialist species. Its webbed, hook – like claws, double coated fur and stubby rudder like tail are all adaptations to its wetland dependent life. It locates fish from the banks of shallow wetlands, dives in after the fish and catches it with its hooked claws.

The double coated fur prevents the cat from getting wet and the tail helps in steering the cat while it hunts fish. Apart from that, it eats mollusks, snakes and rodents. It is a muscular, deep chested feline and is capable of hunting down small goats and poultry, which is why, in absence of natural prey, it hunts livestock and poultry and gets into conflict with people.

The cat keeps rodent populations in check. In Thailand, it has been observed that places without Fishing cats have shown an increase in diseases which are spread by rodents. Since Fishing cats are apex predators of marshland ecosystems, their ousting from such habitats might have unforeseen consequences.

Is there any incidence related to the cat which is memorable that you would love to share with our readers?

There are many. But, since our project mainly stands on the acceptance of Fishing cats by the community, I will share a particularly happy memory.

Through our constant speech and dialogue with the community, we were able to create Fishing Cat Protection Committees in Howrah. One day, it so happened that some individuals had tried to catch a female Fishing cat for its meat and skin. Though the female escaped, the baby could not and the cub was caught. But locals from our committee got news and rushed to the spot to save the baby. They were able to do it and the baby was released, shortly after which, it scampered off into the reeds. Among the people who saved the cat, were erstwhile poachers and other people who lose their poultry and goats to these creatures often. It is heartening to see the tolerance of these communities. But they do not exist in isolation and their lifestyle is continuously changing because they are increasingly being tied to globalization and urban economy. What will happen to that tolerance level, that is what I fear.

Being an animal that prefers the wetland habitat of Sundarban, what are the present day challenges hindering survival of the cat?

Howrah is a geographically lowlying area that was flooded by Damodar and Rupnarayan rivers. Agriculture was a problem in this flood prone zone. However, reed beds grew naturally and people cultivated these as their livelihood for roof thatch, wall thatch and for betel leaf cultivation. In these very reed beds, wetland species take refuge like the Fishing cats, otters and other creatures like the jackals, civets and jungle cats.

Now, the legal status of these marshlands is not wetlands. They fall under agricultural lands. Sometimes these lands are subjected to degradation and conversion for industrial activities and for illegal brick kilns.

Bigger drive for development also leads to development of roads which has left the once dominant marshlands into remnant marshy patches.

It has been seen that these cats can actually be quite tolerant towards human activities and can hide in these marshy patches at daytime, emerging only at night to hunt. But atleast those marshy patches should remain. The government needs to be proactive in saving such marshlands because these marshlands are not only habitats for Fishing cats, they are also of great importance for us as they help to recharge groundwater.

In Howrah, reed bed cultivation is slowly losing out because the bigger markets prefer jute which is cheaper but not as much durable as Khori (a particular reed) is. This might influence people to switch to paddy cultivation which will have negative consequences for the cat. Opportunities for exploring marketability for Khori must be explored.

Humans often kill Fishing cats in retaliation to livestock and poultry killing. In such instances, the community must be helped in taking up good livestock protection measures.

In West Bengal, the Fishing cat is the State Animal but few people know this fact.

Therefore, inadequate knowledge of the cat is also an indirect threat to the cat’s existence. Awareness generation about the cat needs both a top-down and bottom-up approach as people living with the cat as well as policy makers need to be educatedabout the cat’s endangered status.

Creation of empathy for the cat is easier said than done but this is exactly what might save the cat.

Being a woman conservationist, do you think common people judge your views and work differently?

I have never felt such vibes from people. I think a lot of women conservationists and biologists before us like Vidya Athreya, Aparajita Dutta, Shomita Mukherjee etc. have proved their efficiency to people who have looked down upon women conservationists in the past. Infact, I got a lot of support from local people because I was a woman working on a cat that comes out at night. From many people in the academic and research world, I can only remember getting pep-talks and encouragement.

What are the future projects you plan to work on?

I am currently working on a conservation project to understand the social, economic and political drivers of land-use change that might determine Fishing cat persistence outside protected areas in West Bengal, India. I am also trying to understand perceptions of the local communities (reed cultivators, fishermen, labourers) about the Fishing cat so as to understand interactions. Many have a tom and jerry relation with the Fishing cat which is quite amazing – would you call it negative or positive? neither can it be neutral. What is it then?

I am also interested in looking at more inclusive and decentralized models of conservation outside protected areas for species like the Fishing cat.

I also write for “Down To Earth”, “New Indian Express” regularly. I think that a scientist has a much bigger role than just doing science  – that of taking the general public into our stride. This is where mediums like writing can really help. I also try to highlight recent conservation issues.

I plan to take ahead a community conserved area initiative. The future plans include studying the ecology and threats of Fishing cats in human dominated landscapes, creating awareness about the initiative amongst government officials so that locals can be supported in this initiative.