Securing a shared future for wildlife and people

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Image by Lorinda Taylor
A fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus) at Taronga Zoo in Sydney.

You may not have heard of a fishing cat, but I’m fairly sure you could hazard a good guess as to what tickles the culinary whiskers of these predatory felines. While the menu may be unsurprising, their penchant for fish is not without consequence, because it brings an already vulnerable species into increasing competition with fisherman – and within their shrinking range.

In fact, these conflicts are an important factor in the species’ precipitous decline, which has seen their population slide by about 30 per cent over the past 15 years. Fortunately, a Taronga-supported fishing cat conservation project aims to tackle this issue in Nepal, one of the few remaining strongholds for this elusive cat.

Through our field conservation grants program, Taronga supports the National Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC) and collaborators at Charles Sturt University, providing them with critical resources for their ‘Conservation of the Fishing Cat in Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve and Buffer zones’ project.

This project is of high importance, because it has the ultimate objective of producing a practical management plan for the long term conservation of fishing cats in Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve and surrounds. After overcoming some early setbacks, the project is progressing well, and is a great example of how research and community outreach go hand-in-hand to make lasting conservation impact.

Casting a wide net for community outreach
Through their earlier work in the region, the field team identified the importance of early and extensive community consultation, and this has been a key feature of their work throughout. They embarked on a major push of fishing cat conservation outreach in schools, communities and directly with the very fishermen that share their fishing grounds with these marvellous cats. To date, the project has distributed about 200 posters in schools and in prominent public locations, describing the project and providing information on fishing cats in general, with 500 posters planned for distribution during the course of the project.

The team has also held various meetings with three community groups, eight secondary schools (937 students) and local stakeholders to discuss fishing-cat ecology and biology and the need for their conservation.

How much of a problem are fishing cats to the multitude of fish farms dotting the landscape? Surprisingly, prior to this project, the answer to this and related questions was almost as elusive as the cat itself. The team has taken two approaches to tackle this question. First they conducted in-depth interviews with 51 fish farm owners, representing about 50 per cent of all fish farms in the area, and gained crucial information on the views, concerns and perceptions of fishing cats at these local fish farms.

Additionally, the team have also conducted an extensive camera trapping program at 20 sample fish farms. As well as gathering some wonderful images, this approach is enabling the project to directly quantify use of the fish farms by fishing cats, and all of these results are being compiled for publication, and will form the basis of the draft management plan for the species, which is expected to be completed within the next eight months.

Ultimately, managing the conflicts between fishing cats and fish farms may be key to ensuring their survival, and we look forward to further updates from Nepal on the progress of this fascinating and important conservation project. I’m sure you would agree that “Gone fishing” would be a very sad epitaph for this elegant cat.

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