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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.