CatSG

Fishing cat

Prionailurus viverrinus

IUCN Red List: Vulnerable

Weight: 7-16 kg
Body length: 65-85 cm
Tail length: 25-30 cm
Longevity: up to 10 years
Litter size: 2-3 cubs

Description

The fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus) got its Latin name because of its rather viverrine or civet-like appearance and its preference for fish prey. Two subspecies of the fishing cat are recognised:

  • Prionailurus viverrinus viverrinus in India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indochina, Nepal and possibly Bhutan and
  • Prionailurus viverrinus rhizophoreus on Java

However, further research on its geographic variation is needed to clarify its taxonomy.

The fishing cat is a middle sized cat and is often confused with the leopard cat. Its fur is short, coarse, and grey or olive brown. The head and body are conspicuously marked with small black spots and stripes. On the face, back and neck the spots merge into short lines. Its belly is white and there are two dark collars on the throat. The head is relatively big and broad with small, rounded ears. The backs of the ears are black with white central spots. The thick muscular tail is very short for a felid and measures only about one third of the total head and body length. The tail is marked with 5-6 black rings and a black tip. The fishing cat's legs are short, stocky and powerfully built. The claws have incomplete sheaths so that they are not completely enveloped when retracted. Despite their fishing activity, the fishing cat does not show marked morphological adaptations for capturing or eating fish. Their hind feet are webbed but the webbing beneath the toes is not much more developed than that of a bobcat, and unlike the flat-headed cat, in which the second upper pre-molar is long and sharp (which enables it to grip slippery prey), the fishing cat has a much smaller and less developed tooth. Females are markedly smaller than males. 

Other names

Language/Country

Name

Bangladesh

mecho biral, mecho bagh

French

chat pêcheur, chat viverrin

German

Fischkatze

India (Bengali; Hindi)

mach bagral, bagh dasha, baghrul; bun biral, khupya bagh

Indonesia

kucing bakau

Laos

sua hay

Myanmar

kyaung ta nga

Pakistan

mach billi

Sri Lanka (Sinhalese; Tamil)

kola diviya, handun diviya; koddi pulli

Spanish

gato pescador

Thailand

sua pla

Status and Distribution

The fishing cat is classified as Vulnerable in the IUCN Red List. It is thought to be widely distributed through a variety of different habitat types and is assumed to be common with a highly localised occurrence around wetlands.

The species is in decline within all range countries at an alarming rate, mainly in South-east Asia. The fishing cats range is highly localised in all range countries except West Bengal, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The species is mainly recorded in the Terai region of the Himalayan foothills, eastern India into Bangladesh where it is locally common in some regions. Historically, the fishing cat occurred throughout tropical Asia from India, Sri Lanka and Nepal to most of South-east Asia including the islands of Java and possibly Sumatra. Currently, the fishing cat has a discontinuous distribution in mainland tropical Asia with large areas where it is absent, extirpated or where it has not yet been detected. It is found in South and South-east Asia from Pakistan to Cambodia south to Thailand. It is also found on the islands of Sri Lanka and Java. Its current status in South-east Asia is not clear and there have been drastic declines in fishing cat populations throughout much of their Asian range over the last decade. Only very few recent recrods exist from Cambodia, Indonesia, Java, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam and the species has a highly patchy distribution. The regular confusion with the leopard cat has led to an overestimation of its range, and the species might be less common than formerly thought. Thus, further investigation on its actual distribution is required.

In Pakistan the species was only recorded in the Sindh Province. In India, it was recorded in some protected areas in the provinces Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, West Bengal, Rajasthan, Assam, Andhra Pradesh and in Arunachal Pradesh. Records form unprotected areas exist from Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh. In the Sundarbans on the Sagar Island the fishing cat has been extirpated according to the local people while in other parts of the Sundarbarns the fishing cat seems to do better. In large areas of India it has been extirpated such as in the Bharatpur region. In Bangladesh, fishing cats are found in the Sundarbans. In Nepal, it is found along the border to India. It was detected in the far western and central Terai and is present in parts of south-western and south-eastern Nepal. In Vietnam, the fishing cat could not be confirmed in any reserves during the last survey and may is extinct. However, it possibly still occurs in the Mekong Delta. It probably occurred in southwestern China but this is not confirmed. Its occurrence in Lao PDR is also uncertain and needs further investigation. In Sri Lanka, it seems to occur over the whole island and has even been recorded on watercourses close to the capital city. Its distribution in Cambodia is poorly known. In 2003, it was recorded in the Kulen Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary in northern Cambodia, and in 2008 it was detected in the Botum-sakor National Park in southwest Cambodia. In Myanmar the fishing cat was only recorded in the Hukaung Valley and Kyun Wildlife Sanctuary. From Java records are missing since 2000. Its presence on Sumatra is disputed as there are no confirmed records and photos first identified as fishing cat all turned out to be leopard cat on a second look.

In the Chitwan National Park, Nepal, the density of fishing cats was estimated at 4.37-6.06 individuals / 100 km². In the Coringa Wildlife Sanctuary in Andhra Pradesh, India, the density was estimated at 53 / 100 km² fishing cats. 

Distribution area of the fishing cat (red = extant, orange = possibly extant; IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016).

Habitat

The fishing cat is strongly associated with wetlands. It lives typically near water and where thick cover is available. It can be found in habitats such as swamps and marshy areas, mangroves, oxbow lakes, reed beds, tidal creeks and along watercourses. The fishing cat is not so common around fast-moving watercourses. In Sri Lanka, India and Nepal, they live in forests, shrubs, reed beds and tall grass areas. The fishing cat has been recorded in degraded habitats such as the aquaculture ponds outside of the city of Calcutta in India. It is also reported to be common around villages in wetland areas where habitat destruction has not been significant. The fishing cat seems not to use rice paddies and other irrigated forms of cultivation.

Most records of the fishing cat come from lowland areas but in the Himalayas in India it has been recorded up to 1,525 m. 

Ecology and Behaviour

The fishing cat is nocturnal and spends most of its time in dense cover. It is an excellent swimmer and diver over long distances. The fishing cat hunts alone. It has been observed hunting mostly in shallow water where it uses the webbed hind feet to push itself along leaving the front feet ready to grab fish. It has been observed diving into water after fish as well as attempting to scoop them out of water with its paws. Fishing cats were reported to catch waterfowl by swimming up to them while fully submerged and seizing their legs from underneath.

The home range size of female fishing cats in Nepal’s Chitwan National Park was 4-6 km². A male had a home range of 16-22 km². Male home ranges enclose several female home ranges and both sexes use scent for marking. In Thailand, a male had a home range of 11-13 km², and a female had a home range of 4 km².

The fishing cat’s peak in mating activity in coastal wetlands of northeastern India occurs in January to February with births taking place from March to May. Mating is also observed in June. The gestation period lasts for 63-70 days. At the age of 10 months, fishing cats become independent. 

Fishing cat looking at a camera trap.
Camera trap picture of a fishing cat.
Female fishing cat fishing.
Fishing cat looking for a fish prey.
Fishing cat trying to catch a fish.
Fishing cats can easily submerge their head under the water.

Prey

Fishing cat with its prey.
Fishing cat preying on a python.

The fishing cat preys mainly on fish and other aquatic species, and not primarily on small mammals as other small cats. It also feeds on birds, amphibians such as frogs, on small mammals, rodents, reptiles (e.g. snakes), snails, crustaceans and molluscs. It is known to sometimes take small Indian civet, wild pig and young deer. It preys occasionally also on domestic goats, calves, dogs and poultry. It dives into water to catch fish, ducks or coots. The fishing cat travels along rivers and changes its hunting site about every fifteen minutes. Occasionally it also takes carrion; it has been observed scavenging livestock carcasses and kills. In Nepal’s Royal Chitwan National Park, the fishing cat most frequently took fish as prey.

In the Keoladeo National Park in Bharatpur, Rajasthan, India, the fishing cat mainly preyed on fish followed by birds. Insects and rodents were seen in relatively small numbers in scats. In Thailand, their main prey are fish, rodents and birds, whereas other prey such as snakes and crabs were consumed in small percentage.

Main Threats

Major threats are habitat loss and fragmentation as well as illegal killing and persecution. Wetlands, marshes and grasslands are increasingly lost to agricultural land development and human settlements. In South-east Asia, 90% of the wetlands are threatened by increasing settlement, degradation and conversion. Also the coastal mangroves in tropical Asia are facing rapid disappearance. Thus, the fishing cat loses crucial habitat. It is also threatened by draining for agriculture, pollution and excessive hunting, wood-cutting and fishing. In South Asia its habitat is mainly threatned by urbanisation and industrialisation. The fishing cat's habitat in India mainly comprises freshwater marshlands which are subject to conversion and degradation. In Thailand, around the Khao Sam Roi Yod National Park, the conversion of land into shrimp farms has significantly reduced the potential habitat for the fishing cat, and in west Bengal in India mushrooming brick industries are threatening wetlands. Increasingly, pollution of the waterways of Asia poses an obvious indirect threat as the fishing cat consumes contaminated prey and can accumulate lethal amounts of pollutants. The depletion of fish stocks due to overfishing is likely to also become a significant threat to the fishing cat.

Conflict with humans is a major problem too. Poisoning, trapping and clubbing seem to be common methods to kill fishing cats in India and other range countries. In Thailand, poaching and retribution killing were the major causes for a high Fishing Cat mortality. The species also gets killed in retaliation for livestock predation, for its fur and for its meat which is locally considered a delicacy and can have high market values. In Howrah district, India, fishing cats are often killed outside protected areas in human-dominated landscape. From 2010 to 2011 27 deaths of fishing cats were recorded. In Bangladesh, 82 records and 30 confirmed mortalities were collected from articles and searches in the web from 2010 to 2013. Most mortalities were due to local people killing the fishing cats. 

In Cambodia the fishing cat is killed for consumption and as retaliation for damaging fishing nets. Fishing cats get also caught in snares set for other target species.

Conservation Efforts and Protection Status

The fishing cat is included in the CITES Appendix II. It is protected over most of its range and hunting is prohibited in Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam. There is no legal protection outside of protected areas in Nepal. In India, it is accorded the highest protection by being placed in Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act. The fishing cat occurs in protected areas such as the Sundarbans (Bangladesh and India), Chitwa (Nepal), Corbett, Dudwha and Kaziranga (India). It can be found in and around various protected areas, e.g. Khao Sam Roi Yot and Thale Noi in Thailand, Botum-Sakor and Ujung Kulon in Cambodia and in Pulau Dua on Java.

One of the most important aspects in regard to the conservation of the fishing cat is the protection and sustainable use of wetland areas. There is a need for more comprehensive surveys for fishing cats to better understand its ecology, status and actual distribution and the phylogenetic relation between isolated populations. Effective measures to prevent indiscriminate trapping, snaring and poisoning are required. The inclusion of local people into the conservation of the fishing cat is very important. A conservation project of the fishing cat taking place in Thailand includes a strong public education feature as it attempts to reverse the trend of persecution of the fishing cat. An Indian conservation organisation also recently started a public survey about the fishing cat and an education program to promote conservation awareness.