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Rare Video: Vandal Fishing Cats Lead to Wildlife Discovery

Endangered Baby Fishing Cat Fishes in the Wild from Morgan Heim on Vimeo.

When I set out to cover the story of Thailand’s fishing cats, I never expected vandalism could lead to an unprecedented wildlife discovery for this little known endangered species.

Fishing cats are increasingly rare. New estimates suggest only about 2,500-3,000 remain in the wild. It is only in recent years that scientists have started to gain a better understanding of where these small wildcats live or what’s happening to them.

A male fishing cat named "Beak Gah" (Crow's Wing) caught on camera trap as it prowls a local fish pond in Sam Roi Yod, Thailand. (Photo/ Josh Lewis, Morgan Heim and the Fishing Cat Research and Conservation Project)
A rare daytime sighting of a male fishing cat named “Beak Gah” (Crow’s Wing) caught on camera trap as it prowls a local fish pond in Sam Roi Yod, Thailand. (Photograph courtesy Josh Lewis, Morgan Heim and the Fishing Cat Research and Conservation Project)

Fishing cats, as their name suggests, like water, preferring to slink around swamps and coastal mangrove forests throughout SE Asia. Development in the form of shrimp farming and oil palm plantations has eaten up much of the fishing cat’s habitat. Despite this, one small population is making a bid at survival in rural villages a few hours south of Bangkok.

The cats have proven to be highly adaptable, taking advantage of easy food sources in fish ponds and surrounding farms. They have been known to slumber in spirit houses. And often, to a farmer’s chagrin, will spray shacks with a scent that could send Pepé Le Pew running for the hills. “It’s just amazing to see how these cats have adapted to the human landscape, and how they use it,” says Thai conservation biologist Passanan “Namfon” Cutter, founder of the Fishing Cat Research and Conservation Project. “They seem to know what we’re all about, what we’re up to, why we’re there.”

The cat’s gumption does not always go so appreciated.

This was certainly the case one July afternoon in 2013, as I stood in the tall grasses of Sam Roi Yod, watching Toi, a local fish farmer stomp in the mud. He was literally hopping mad because he said a cat had been raiding his fish traps.

Toi, (right), a fish farmer tells biologist Passanan "Namfon" Cutter and her team about a fishing cat that has been raiding his fish traps. They will set up a camera trap site to try and catch the vandal in action. (Photo/Morgan Heim)
Toi, (right), a fish farmer tells biologist Passanan “Namfon” Cutter (hidden) and her team about a fishing cat that has been raiding his fish traps. They will set up a camera trap site to try and catch the vandal in action. (Photograph by Morgan Heim)

In the wrong circumstances, this could signal bad news for the suspected culprit. Revenge killing is high on the list of fishing cat death threats.

Luckily in this instance, Toi’s anger was tempered by his understanding and kindness. He is a fixture in local efforts to monitor fishing cats, providing Namfon and her team with access to his land for research. Instead of retaliating, Toi set out to help Namfon “capture” the culprit on video.

Fish farmer Toi looks prepares to sacrifice a trap to a site aimed at capturing the fish trap vandals on video.
Toi, a local fish farmer, looks on in dismay. He suspects fishing cats have been breaking into his fish traps. (Photograph by Morgan Heim)

The area in question has no natural funnels or barriers to contain fish, so Toi, Namfon and her assistants set about modifying a site. They shoveled two small mud berms to close off an area about six feet in diameter. Toi placed a couple fish traps at the edges and they baited the pond with fish caught nearby. A few camera traps later, and we were ready to leave for the night. I could barely sleep thinking about what we might find the next morning. Watch the set up below.

Fish, Fish Fishing Cat from Morgan Heim on Vimeo.

We arrived to carnage. Toi’s traps remained untouched, but the fish were missing from the pond. Silver scales and fresh tracks littered the mud.

With anticipation we collected memory cards and zipped back to Ruj’s house. Gathered around his cluttered desk beneath a framed “Peanuts” puzzle picture, we began flipping through photo and video files hoping to catch a glimpse of one of the rarest cats in the world.
Passanan "Namfon" Cutter, (center), and her assistants Earth (left) and Ruj (right), get ready to upload images from camera traps onto their computer at Ruj's house in Sam Roi Yod.
Passanan “Namfon” Cutter, (center), and her assistants Earth (left) and Ruj (right), get ready to upload images from camera traps onto their computer at Ruj’s house in Sam Roi Yod. (Photograph by Morgan Heim)

At first all we saw were glowing reeds as the camera’s infrared light blinked into action. Then from behind the camera, the back and shoulders of a fishing cat moved into view. It appeared to be a big male, but he flirted with the camera, quickly moving back into the darkness.

Turns out he’s not the only cat on the fish farm. Another file revealed a surprise none of us expected. The light snapped on and standing directly across from the camera was the small form of a young fishing cat. His size suggested he’s between five to seven months old, according to Namfon.

In the video, the young cat peers at the water, watching for movements beneath the surface. The fish at this point are lethargic, easy prey, but it doesn’t stop this young one from testing out his fishing skills. Walking along the edge of the pond, he lifts a paw and lightly, almost methodically taps at the edge of the water. A fish made curious by the movement, pokes its head at the surface before sinking back down. Next, well, you’ll have to watch the video to find out, but let’s just say this fishing cat grew a little bigger that night.

Later we showed Toi that he had not one, but two fishing cats likely breaking into his traps. Toi’s face lit up when he saw the video on a mobile tablet that Namfon carries with her—his irritation forgotten in the excitement of discovery. Namfon gave Toi the equivalent of a few U.S. dollars—enough money to buy material for new traps—and all appeared forgiven.

Fellow farmers net Toi as they joke around about how to catch a fishing cat. The help of farmers like Toi has been vital to the success of the research and conservation efforts in Thailand. (Photo/Morgan Heim)
Conservation isn’t always serious business. Here, fellow farmers net Toi as they joke around about how to catch a fishing cat. These farmers have been vital to the success of the research and conservation efforts in Thailand. (Photograph by Morgan Heim)

To this day, Toi continues to be a great help to the fishing cat efforts in Sam Roi Yod. Indeed, his help is critical for the project’s success. In this instance, thanks to the help of a single fish farmer in a small village in Thailand, Namfon and her team captured video never before seen in the wild. For a moment, one juvenile fishing cat, uncertain but bold, came out of the shadows and embraced its namesake for all of us to see.

 

You can learn more about CAT in WATER, a media project to document Thailand’s endangered fishing cats at http://catinwater.wordpress.com.

Comments

  1. Lyrissa
    shiprock
    February 7, 3:27 pm

    I really like the cat and how it moves around.

  2. Rebecca
    Cuenca, Ecuador
    February 1, 8:00 am

    Amazing. Thanks for doing your part to save one of the many endangered treasures gracing this planet.

  3. usman
    lahore
    January 30, 7:37 am

    its fake fish wasnt alive.
    u need to look camera closely
    they offered it to cat and then she grabs it slowly.

  4. Cesar De La Garza
    United States
    January 30, 1:44 am

    Nice work, must be amazing to find something so interesting that leads to more questions, this is a big opportunity for you to kept your investigation and answer those questions. Keep going you are doing it right.

  5. Morgan Heim
    January 29, 6:47 pm

    Indeed, though the fish were alive when the research team left, by the time the fishing cats showed up the fish were dying, and at least one is clearly dead. But if you watch the video, you can actually see a fish poke its head out of the water and then duck back down. This cat definitely went after easy pickings, and it is very common for fishing cats to feast on dead fish or shrimp leftovers from drained ponds. I imagine it’s like their version of delivery pizza, or a salad bar at a grocery store.

  6. william
    us
    January 29, 5:38 pm

    The cat scooped up a dead fish and anther dead fish is floating in the water.

  7. Jake Ansell
    United Kingdom
    January 29, 3:45 pm

    The fish looked dead

  8. Morgan Heim
    United States
    January 29, 2:26 pm

    They are super smart Kelly, downright wily. Thanks for checking them out!

  9. kelly kane
    United Kingdom
    January 29, 8:48 am

    a very beautiful cat and very smart :-)