Wildlife & Biodiversity

Odisha starts project to conserve Bhitarkanika fishing cats

The nocturnal species are not easy to trace; no exact ecological data on their population at the park

By Ashis Senapati
Published: Wednesday 24 June 2020
Fishing cats in a mangrove forest in Bhitarkanika National Park, Odisha Photo: Ashis Senapati

Correction: The earlier version of this story, published on June 24, 2020, carried two images of leopard cats instead of fishing cats. The images were changed on June 25. The error is regretted.

The Odisha forest department has started a two-year conservation project for fishing cats in Bhitarkanika National Park in Kendrapara district.

The species is listed as ‘endangered’ on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List. This means it faces a high threat of extinction in the wild.

The fishing cat, however, is not a well-known species and does not enjoy the same status as crocodiles do. One purpose of conservation measures was to create awareness among people for the species, said Bikash Ranjan Dash, Divisional Forest Officer at Bhitarkanika.

The project will be funded by the department.

A new management plan to conserve fishing cats at the national park, including mapping and survey of the cat population was devised, he said. “These measures are expected to protect fishing cats in the park and its nearby areas,” Dash added.

A census to find out the exact numbers of the fishing cat — a nocturnal species that is not easy to trace — will be conducted during night-time, according to Dash. No exact ecological data on the population of the fishing cat in the park is available as of now.

In 2019, during a mammal census in Bhitarkanika, only 20 fishing cats were spotted, according to Dash. This was, however, not indicative of the exact number of the species, as the census was conducted during the day, said Dash.

The United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) lists the fishing cat on Appendix II in Article IV of CITES: This governs international trade in this species. The species is also classified under the first schedule of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. Offences under the first schedule attract the maximum penalties under the law.

Fishing cats hunt fish and crustaceans for food from the park’s water bodies: They dive in to catch prey with their hooked claws. They can also hunt livestock and poultry in villages near forests and have also known to encroach human habitations.

Abundant fish in rivers and creeks due to a fishing ban and relatively larger distances from human habitation, however, has reduced such conflicts around Bhitarkanika, said Dash.

The species breed all year round, but their peak breeding season in Bhitarkanika is known to be between March and May, added the officer. Like several other rare species, little is known about fishing cats in the wild. They spend most of their lives in areas of dense vegetation close to water bodies and are excellent swimmers.

A major threat for fishing cats is the destruction of wetlands, their preferred habitat. The prawn mafia in the area have reportedly destroyed aquatic ecologies in Satabhaya, Bagapatia and other water bodies within the park in the past by converting wetlands and mangrove forests into prawn farms.

Fishing cats earlier roamed in these areas for fish. They, however, stopped visiting these areas after the denudation of mangrove forests and destruction of the wetlands.

The forest department should prepare a status report on fishing cats in Bhitarkanika, said Hemanta Rout, an environmentalist and president of the Marine Turtles and Mangrove Conservation Society in Kendrapara.

Similar conservation measures were recently completed for the park’s salt-water crocodiles.

The rivers and creeks of Bhitarkanika — the second-largest mangrove forest in the country after the Sundarbans in West Bengal — are home to 1,757 salt-water crocodiles, according to the January 2020 reptile census.

The mangrove forests of the national park are also inhabited by spotted deer, wild boar, water monitors and several other animals.

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