Cats that Fish

Dr. Shomita worked at the Wildlife Trust of India, Delhi and Tiger Watch, Ranthambhor. She is writing a proposal that aims to explore the utility of non-invasive DNA analysis in addressing questions related to small carnivore ecology. Though her chief interest lies in the ecology of small cats, she is also planning a project on the leopards of Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai along with some other friends. Currently employed with the Centre for Wildlife Studies, Bangalore.

The moon shone brilliantly through the clear summer sky, lighting up Keoladeo Ghana National Park , in Bharatpur. I sat still on the bank of the boating canal which was nearly dry, save for one end that had some water. Across the bank on the other side a wonderful picture unfolded. A relatively large cat walked along the bank and sat at the edge peering into the water. The cat, the moon and their reflections in the still water created a magical moment but alas I did not have a camera. Memories, it is said, get distorted or exaggerated as time goes by but this beautiful scene, according to me could never be exaggerated. The cat was unperturbed by my presence, very likely not even aware of me sitting there. It had come for one purpose – to fish. It sat for 15 minutes and then walked a few feet down the bank to sit again for some minutes and then move to another spot. All the while it concentrated hard at the water waiting for some fish to surface. Finally it spotted one and leapt into the water beating around with its paws. Then it dived underwater creating wild ripples and loud splashes and the next moment the cat was on my side of the canal with a big fish in its mouth. It sauntered into the bushes to feast.

My study on fishing cats showed that fish formed a major portion of its diet along with rodents. The cat is a medium sized one weighing between 6 – 12 kg. and is often mistaken for a leopard cub. Its legs are short and its muzzle a bit elongated compared to other cats giving it its name of Prionailurus viverrinus. The specific name – viverrinus means “civet like”. This cat is largely Oriental in distribution but its western range extends to Sind in Pakistan close to the Indian border. Its distribution though wide is patchy and is probably limited by the presence of water. The fact that it is specialized for fishing is borne out by its webbed feet. It is closely related to two other species that we find in India – the leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis ) and the rusty spotted cat ( Prionailurus rubiginosus). All three have prominent stripped markings on their forehead and small round-tipped ears. In Bharatpur I also found that the fishing cats marked their territories with their droppings just like other cats do, but here they used to defecate on cattle and nilgai dung and at crossroads. It was a visual signal to other fishing cats and very likely other predators like jungle cats and jackals too. It could also be a signal placed by individuals to indicate to themselves the position of various important landmarks.

Not much is known of this cat, but I had the good fortune to study them to a small extent in one of the easiest field sites and sightings like the one described above and one with a mother and cub were indeed rare ones.

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