Wildlife & Biodiversity

Three flagship marshland species found in Odisha's Chilika lake

Fishing Cat, Smooth-coated Otter and Eurasian Otter populations detected in Chilika brings attention to India’s largest contiguous marshland

 
By Tiasa Adhya
Last Updated: Friday 13 March 2020
(From left) Fishing Cat, Eurasian Otter and Smooth-coated Otter.
(From left) Fishing Cat, Eurasian Otter and Smooth-coated Otter. (From left) Fishing Cat, Eurasian Otter and Smooth-coated Otter.

The Fishing Cat Project, partner to Small Wild Cat Conservation Foundation, recently found the presence of a viable, breeding population of the fishing cat in India’s oldest Ramsar site, Odisha’s Chilika lake. It is the only wetland cat in India.

Wild cat species primarily hunt on ground. But the fishing cat hunts majorly in water. It has specialised features like partially webbed feet and a water-resistant fur that helps it thrive in wetlands.

The flat-headed cat of southeast Asia is the only other feline that shares similar features. This makes it unique among all 39 extant cat species.

By-catch data from the project survey also revealed the presence of two otter species here — smooth-coated otter and Eurasian otter. The latter’s presence in Chilika is especially significant, given that little is known about its distribution and abundance in India and especially along the country’s eastern coast.

It was not recorded previously from Chilika. Even local fishermen, referring to otters as ‘Uddho’, did not know that two different species of otters are present in Chilika.

All three are facing threats of habitat loss and especially the loss of wetland vegetation throughout the world, that gives them refuge and a space to breed in. The fishing cat is ‘Vulnerable’ according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species. So is the smooth-coated otter. The Eurasian otter is ‘Near Threatened’.

These three wetland carnivores are also protected under the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972. While both the otters belong to Schedule II of the Act, the fishing cat belongs to Schedule I like the tiger and elephant and deserves protection measures of the highest accord.

All three species were detected during a survey to estimate the occupancy of fishing cat in Chilika. We conducted the survey in the fringe villages of Chilika, covering an area of 1,070 square kilometres by taking more than 1,000 interviews and placing camera traps for more than 300 nights.

The project was a collaborative effort between The Fishing Cat Project, Wild Orissa (a local non-profit), Mahavir Pakshi Suraksha Samity (a community organisation) and Chilika Wildlife Division, Forest Department of Odisha. It was funded by Panthera Small Cat Action Fund and Mohamed Bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund.

At present, the Irrawady dolphin and migratory birds are the focus of research and management interventions in Chilika. The Irrawady dolphin signifies deep waters.

On the other hand, the wetlands of Chilika provide rich foraging grounds for winter migrants.

However, no special attention was given to the marsh habitat after the migrants left. As a result, illegal, intensive pisciculture farms had increased tenfold in the last decade in the area.

It is here that the presence of three wetland specialists — all mammals and carnivores — matters. Once the presence of these species are highlighted, we expect more attention to come to what is perhaps India’s largest contiguous marshland.

This year, Chilika Development Authority took a significant step to halt illegal aquaculture farms that had begun spreading rapidly in the marshland, endangering the rich wetland biota and the livelihood of the Behera (indigenous fisherfolk) community.

This needs to be up scaled further by developing a habitat management plan, introducing and following monitoring protocols for the three flagship species.

Dolphins and migratory water birds are monitored every year through a census. Similar population estimation exercises need to be conducted for the fishing cat, smooth-coated otter and Eurasian otter.

Tiasa Adhya is a co-founder of The Fishing Cat Project

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