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The Asian Fishing Cat: Surviving Urban Jungles in Sri Lanka

Pause the YouTube cute cat videos for a moment and ponder this– what if the tabby cat in that video could catch fish… and it was endangered…and it lived in Sri Lanka? Wouldn’t you want to know more? Then read on to learn about the endangered Asian fishing cats of Sri Lanka.

Photo courtesy of Emmanuel Keller

What are Fishing Cats?

The fishing cat is a medium sized wild cat. Some people call them Asian fishing cats (or Southeast Asian fishing cats), but since they only occur in Asia, the reference is somewhat redundant. They weigh about 28 lbs (12.5 kilos) and look like an extra large house cat or a small bobcat. They have a striped tabby-like coat and are often mistaken for civets.

The fishing cat lives in a wide-ranging habit throughout Asia and can be found in Nepal, India, Pakistan, Cambodia and Sri Lanka. They live in wetlands where they swim around and catch fish. However, they are opportunistic feeders and also eat small mammals, birds and domestic chickens.

“To a fishing cat, un-caged domestic chickens are like a bucket of KFC”
— Anya Ratnayaka, fishing cat conservationist

Photo courtesy of Devan Sewell

Why are Asian Fishing Cats Threatened?

The cats are stressed by human conflict such as road accidents, retaliatory actions from chicken kills and, to a lesser extent, poaching for bush meat. However, habitat loss is the primary cause for concern.

The cats in Colombo are trying to carve out a living in a city with 750,000 humans who sprawl over 14 square miles (23/k). Sri Lanka had a devastating civil war that ended in 2009. The economy has rebounded with a post-war construction boom in Colombo and all of that human housing and commercial activity eats into the prime wetland habitat that the cats call home.

Sri Lanka is only now realizing the value of the urban wetlands for both wildlife conservation and tide water management and the city of Colombo has begun to restore wetlands to bring the environment back into balance.

Enter Anya Ratnayaka

Anya is a firecracker. She is cheerfully building a scrappy conservation program challenged by a chaotic urban environment for a small cat that no one has heard of in a country where all of the conservation and tourist dollars are aimed at the charismatic leopard.

Anya loves leopards too. With her masters in wildlife conservation firmly in hand, she started down on a path to study leopards. But then her friend rescued a 6-month old fishing cat and Anya tilted her windmill to take on the conservation of fishing cats.

Her gregarious nature is perfect for the job. While some wildlife conservationists take a competitive approach to research and grant dollars, Anya is all about cooperation. She has established a cooperative relationship with the fishing cat project in Kandy and actively engages with the Sri Lankan wildlife service to gain support for her work. She is also part of the Small Wild Cat Conservation Foundation, which supports the conservation of all endangered small cat species.

Even more rare than the fishing cat is the elusive Andean Cat. Find out more about their conservation efforts in South America.

Anya and Maduranga check camera traps

Sri Lankan Fishing Cat Conservation Programs

Little is known about these nocturnal kitties which makes it very difficult to develop effective conservation strategies. And it’s hard to rally support for a cat that is so hard to see. The Urban Fishing Cat Conservation Project (UFCCP) is working to remedy that by making the cats more visible.

Cat Collaring & Tracking

UFCCP has a handful of cats outfitted with tracking collars. This allows Anya to establish the cat’s range and track how they are navigating the urban environment. The early data shows that the cats are rather ingenious as they slink through the city at night using gutters and storm drains to avoid the worst of the traffic.

Anya is also using tracking data to see how well the cats respond to relocation out of the urban area and into a more natural landscape.

UFCCP has also set up camera traps in the Thalawatugoda biodiversity park. The park is a reclaimed wetland in southwestern Colombo and it’s prime cat habitat. With the help of Maduranga, a tuktuk driver and part-time conservationist, Anya sets and checks the camera traps and explores the terrain for signs of cat activity.

Thalawathugoda biodiversity park cat habitat

Public Education & Outreach

The cats seem to have a particular fondness for nice neighborhoods and houses landscaped with fancy fish ponds. When they find a house with delicious fish stock, they will return again and again until the pond stands empty.

UFCCP works with the security guards in those neighborhoods. The guards alert Anya to any cat activity and the guards will share security footage of cats on the hunt.

The program also has an ongoing relationship with Colombo’s wildlife planning and urban development departments. Anya is on hand, advising the city on the benefits of limiting the loss of wetland acreage. UFCCP also hosts outreach and education workshops for students interested in local cat conservation.

Check out this video of the cats in urban Colombo–

3 Ways to See the Fishing Cat

These cats are even more elusive than the leopards so there are no guarantees, but your best chance is to insert yourself directly into their habitat. Here are three suggestions:

  1. Tell your safari guide that you are interested in the cats. There are pockets of fishing cat habitat throughout Sri Lanka so keep your eyes open while you are also chasing down the elephants and leopards.
  2. Visit the Thalawathugoda biodiversity park. You can take a boat tour of the wetlands and see prime cat habitat. But call ahead for information.
  3. Stay at the Vil Uyana in the Golden Triangle. This super lux hotel located near Sigiyra has a resident cat and also some loris. They run a night walk where you can try to spot both. Check out reviews or book on Booking.com.

How to Support the Urban Fishing Cat Conservation Project

To say that UFCCP runs on a shoestring would be an understatement. They are doing this conservation work with two people, one tuktuk and a budget of $7,000 per year. But they would like to grow the program, expand their outreach and develop a rehab facility–which they can only do that with your help. Here are a few ways to support UFCCP:

  • Donate money to the project via the Wildlife Conservation Network. I donate to this well-respected, fiscally responsible organization and you can too. On their donation page, select the “small cats” project and specify “Urban Fishing Cats Sri Lanka” in the notes field. WCN will make sure that Anya’s project gets the money.
  • Follow them on Facebook and/or YouTube and share their posts with your cat-loving friends.
  • Buy some fishing cat schwag through Red Bubble.

Learn more about the program by watching Anya’s talk at the Wildlife Conservation Expo.

Plan Your Trip to Sri Lanka

Your Parting Shot

Sri Lanka Fishing Cats Emmanuel Keller
Photo courtesy of Emmanuel Keller

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Ryan

Wednesday 10th of June 2020

Its very interesting post l love it!

Brian

Sunday 1st of December 2019

You should seriously blog daily. This is awesome. I love reading this kind of content.

Mihipedia

Friday 11th of October 2019

Your article is on point, interesting and very educative. Anya works hard at keeping her cats safe and her dedication shows. Let's hope more people will fund her efforts.

Nana

Saturday 14th of October 2017

I didnt know about this type of cat! And I can see they are the same with many other wild cats in the world: they are so hard to see because they are mostly active during nights. I get su upset by the fact that we are loosing so many animals because of us humans and habitat loss :( Good to know there are places where they try to protect them. Kind regards, Nana

Carol Guttery

Monday 16th of October 2017

Thanks for commenting. The cats are clever, but they do have to work hard to find a safe habitat in such a large city.

Flo

Saturday 14th of October 2017

Anya is doing amazing work, I can't believe their budget for the whole year is a measly 7,000! Incredible what they've been able to achieve on that budget, imagine what they could do if they had more to work with. Thanks for sharing what they're doing on this front - I think it's fantastic that animal welfare is becoming increasingly important in Sri Lanka.

Carol Guttery

Monday 16th of October 2017

Right?!? Her budget is crazy low. I'm hoping that this piece will not only make more people aware of the cats but also be willing to donate to her project.