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Fighting for fishing cats

20-ม.ค.-2555

 Fishing cats have left their footprints here and there on the soft surface of a mangrove area in Sam Roi Yot National Park in Prachuap Khiri Khan. The night hunter can walk for kilometres in search of food each day. Sadly, their wetland habitat is gradually being destroyed, while the number of cats has dramatically reduced in recent years.

 In a bid to safeguard them, researcher Passanan Cutter launched a conservation project which requires community support and funding.

"I have worked on fishing cat research in Thailand for eight years and I have found large numbers of this cat in Sam Roi Yot National Park," said Passanan.

The researcher found 31 cats, including cubs, in the park in 2009, and managed to trap 17 of them to attach radio-tracking collars, implant microchips and ear tags, as well as collect DNA blood samples. The aim is to study the wild cat, to locate its habitat, and to promote the conservation programme, as they all play an important role to wetland ecology.

 

The fishing cat has grey fur with dark brown or black spots and black lines running up the forehead, over the crown of the head, as well as ringed tails. It has a short body with stocky legs and a large broad head. A fishing cat is about twice the size of a domestic cat (between 63-86cm in length) and weighs up to 12kg for males and 7kg for females. Fishing cats live a solitary life.

Besides, one male might have up to three females in his territory, which is about 7km2 in radius, according to the researcher.

Like other animals, fishing cats urinate and spray to mark their territory.

The scent is "very strong and even unbearable", she noted. Unlike domestic cats, though, these wild creatures are good swimmers, and they are strongly tied to densely vegetated areas close to water, such as mangrove forests, swamps, rivers or lakes.

The fishing cat is the top predator in the wetlands, said Passanan. Its role is similar to a tiger's in a jungle, that plays a pivotal role in the health of the ecosystem. Without a top carnivore as a control mechanism in the wetlands, the ecosystem would become unbalanced, she noted.

Fishing cats primarily eat fish. "I've examined hundreds of samples of dried dung over the years, and I've always found fish scales, rat fur and crab legs," she said, adding that the wild cat's presence in the area benefits the farmers because they eat the pesky rats.

"If one [fishing] cat eats one rat per day, it would reduce the damage done to rice fields caused by rats," she noted. Unfortunately, not all the locals pay heed to her view.

 

Some of the locals hunt these wild animals for exotic food, while others kill them because they eat their chickens. Unfortunately, the fishing cats in the protected Sam Roi Yot area have a much shorter life expectancy _ on average a couple of years _ compared to the average lifespan of about 12 years.

''One of my duties is talking to the locals who live close the park area to make them aware of this endangered animal,'' she said, adding that she conducted a door-to-door campaign asking the locals not to kill these animals if they happen to get trapped or are found in rice fields. Some locals listen _ but many do not care, and a few still hunt them for food.

But this is a problem that Passanan must overcome for the future of these night creatures; not for her own benefit nor for her research, but for the balance of nature.

Besides being a cat lover, Passanan is also a biologist who has worked on conservation research projects for various types of wildlife in Southeast Asia since 1995. Her researches include tracing tigers in Umphang National Park in Tak province and clouded leopards in Khao Yai National Park. In 2000, she worked as a wildlife documentary producer and worked for a number of award-winning films for National Geographic, Animal Planet, and Discovery Channel.

She later turned her interests to fishing cats when the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington D.C. offered her research work in 2003.

''The Smithsonian Zoo had a policy that supported wildlife research at the natural habitat of the wildlife they received. And at the time, the zoo received fishing cats from Khao Khieo Zoo. So I went back to Thailand and started working at Chiew Lan Dam [or Ratchaprapha Dam, in Surat Thani province] because there were many types of felines there,'' she explained. Passanan had high hopes of finding fishing cats near the reservoir. However, during her first three years there, she spotted none.

 

But Passanan never gave up. After receiving a tip that fishing cats were spotted in Ratchaburi by some locals, she followed the lead and set up camera traps around the banks of the Tha Chi River. But again, no luck.

''The more difficult it was to find a fishing cat, the more I engrossed myself in it,'' she said.

Her efforts paid off four years later. On Valentine's Day in 2007, a camera trap captured a fishing cat in the Talay Noi area in Songkhla province after six months by the lake.

''After so many years I finally found my first fishing cat. But the poaching and retribution killing of fishing cats was high in that area,'' the researcher explained, adding she was later informed that wild cats were also spotted in Sam Roi Yot National Park. But she needed a proof.

Locals led her to a house where a male fishing cat was in a cage. She immediately saw red, she recalled.

''It was very pitiful,'' she said.

Passanan hired two male officers from the park to set up camera traps after finding fishing cat footprints in Thung Phakchee, a 36.8km2 area of wetlands outside the national park towards the south. During the first night, a camera trap was able to capture a female fishing cat with her cub.

''Two years ago Thung Phakchee was fertile wetland, but the land has gradually reduced in size because it belongs to individuals who prefer to use the land for rice growing rather than maintaining biodiversity and ecological integrity,'' she said.

Worse still, Passanan also found numerous animal traps in the rice fields, and the number of fishing cats has dramatically decreased from 31 to just five. At present, the radio transmitters attached to the cat collars can no longer be detected because no signal is broadcasted.

''It was sad the cats didn't live long enough for us to replace the battery in the transmitters. I cried every time we found a carcass or even a destroyed collar,'' she noted.

Despite dim hope, Passanan continues to work on the conservation project, together with a female assistant, who volunteered for the job a year ago. Tubtim Muansuwan, an information officer at the national park, always accompanies Passanan after office hours.

Even with a limited budget, Passanan and Tubtim still search for footprints, collect pictures from camera traps, and talk to the locals.

''I still have some hope left,'' she said, adding that after contacting another community near the Sam Roi Yot National Park. She recently conducted field research with a group of students and adults in a bid to educate the public about fishing cats. And the result was quite positive.

''The locals there now understand the meaning of conservation,'' Passanan said with a thrill, after her efforts paid off. Strongly determined to face the challenges, the researcher will continue her work until achieving the ultimate goal: the co-existence between locals and fishing cats.

MORE INFO

Fishing cats are listed as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species due to poaching and habitat destruction. To follow the fishing cat conservation project, visit Passanan’s website at www.fishingcatproject.info or call 089-062-9534.

 

 

Sourcehttp://www.bangkokpost.com/feature/environment/268349/fighting-for-fishing-cats

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