Let’s break a feline stereotype. Like the cat that may be sitting on your lap as you read this, the Endangered fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus) likes to eat fish. But unlike your pet, it will happily swim to catch its dinner.

According to the Cat Specialist Group, fishing cats can grow up to 85 cm with a weight of up to 16 kg, putting them in the small cat category. But unlike most other small cats, this species preys primarily on fish rather than mammals.

Fishing cats live throughout Asia, but their decline has been particularly severe in Indochina. They are believed to be extinct in Vietnam, with no confirmed records in Lao PDR, and only scarce information in Thailand and Cambodia.

Wetland habitat. Credit: Thaung Ret/FFI.

The fishing cat’s wetland habitat has been disappearing across its range. Credit: Thaung Ret/FFI.

Not surprisingly, given their favourite food, fishing cats are found close to rivers, lakes, streams and mangrove forests. Unfortunately, these wetland habitats are rapidly disappearing or being modified by human activity and, as a result, fishing cat numbers have declined dramatically over the last decade.

The species is also threatened by the illegal trade for meat and by conflict with humans (which arises due to the damage they cause to fishers’ nets and can lead to retaliatory killing).

The local Khmer name for the fishing cat is k’la trey – literally ‘tiger fish’ – which has led some villagers to mistakenly believe that this species can be dangerous to people.

Knowledge gaps

Cambodia is rich in wetland habitat. From the great lake of the Tonle Sap to the Mekong River, and from the countless mountainous rivers and streams to some of the region’s largest remaining mangrove forests, the country should provide excellent fishing cat habitat.

But, in reality, scientists had very little evidence to go on.

Prior to 2015, there were only very scant records about wild fishing cats in Cambodia, with one 2003 camera trap image from Kulen Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary (northern Cambodia) and two kittens rescued from a wild fire in Botum Sakor National Park (western Cambodia) in 2008.

Beyond this, a number of captive fishing cats were confiscated between 2012 and 2014 – but it is possible that even these were trafficked from another country.

To address this paucity of information, the Centre for Biodiversity Conservation (CBC) – a partnership between Fauna & Flora International and the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP) – has been searching for fishing cats, with funding from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) and IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature).

The team scopes out likely fishing cat habitat at a mangrove site. Credit Thaung Ret/FFI.

The team scopes out likely fishing cat habitat at a mangrove site. Credit Thaung Ret/FFI.

The aim was simple: to identify priority sites and conservation actions for the species in Cambodia.

The project team included Thaung Ret, Pheng Sokline, Vanessa Herranz Muñoz, Jeremy Holden and myself working in partnership with Wildlife Conservation Society, Ministry of Environment (MoE), Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and local communities.

Following the clues

So where did we start looking? With only two confirmed historical records from Cambodia and the cats being easily mistaken for other species, such as the leopard cat and civet, this was no easy task.

Cat footprint. Credit: Thaung Ret/FFI.

Initial surveys found a cat footprint – but was it a fishing cat or a leopard cat? Credit: Thaung Ret/FFI.

Our best lead came during a RUPP and National University of Singapore field trip to Peam Krosaop Wildlife Sanctuary (in western Cambodia) in September 2014 when, during village interviews, a mammal matching the fishing cat’s size, colour, and activity was described.

Upon visiting one sunny site (where locals had recalled a sighting), the pungent smell, fresh otter dung and numerous mosquitoes told us that this area was being used by otters. We suspected that there might be fishing cats living there as well because of the suitability of the habitat and recommendations from our local guide.

Ret and camera trapping specialists returned in January 2015 to set cameras up at three locations around the mangroves.

In addition, we chose four other wetland sites likely to have fishing cats, and set up a total of 32 camera traps between January and May 2015.

“We chose places that were close to the wetland and weren’t disturbed or under threat,” explains Ret. “We looked for nearby trails made by humans or animals, because if a human trail was nearby, it was probably also used by animals. Finally we looked for animal signs, such as footprints and scats.”

The images and films have now been collected and are being analysed. Stay tuned for my next blog post, in which I will reveal our research findings.