The fishing cat is no 'tiger'
Misidentified as ‘tigers’, the fishing cat’s conflict with humans is one of the main reasons behind their continuous decline throughout the country
It was a winter morning at the Lawachara National Park in Moulvibazar. I was following a stream, with heavy photographic equipment digging into my shoulders with every passing moment.
Suddenly, I heard a growl in the distance. A hairpin bend in front of me was blocking my sight.
''It could be some cats fighting,'' I guessed. My heartbeat and my pace sped up in tandem.
With each stride, the noise became louder. I sneaked past the bend and peeked to my left. I saw two fishing cats mating by the sandbed next to the pond. Their love-making produced a strange hooting sound. The two cats saw me as I took the camera off my shoulder, and they disappeared into the forest. I failed to capture a photo of their mating, but I managed to capture the moment of their escape.
As a wildlife photographer, I felt immensely lucky to have been able to witness the mating of these rare animals in the wild, even though it was only for three seconds.
After this encounter, I invested many nights in Hail Haor, Moulvibazar every year in hopes of catching a glimpse of this nocturnal cat and photographing its lifestyle.
Once I spent twenty-one consecutive nights there. I used to sleep during the day, and from the afternoon until sunrise, I stayed concealed in a camo hide, behind strong torchlights, headlamps, and camera flashlights, sometimes simply sitting or lying in the bushes. As a reward for all the hard work, I witnessed and photographed rare moments not witnessed by many — the cat diving into the water, catching fish, or swimming through the Haor.
Most know this animal as Mechho Bagh (fishing tiger). Even in West Bengal, India, they are known as "Baghrole". I also took them as some form of a fish-eating tiger. Then eminent zoologist Professor Dr Reza Khan helped me with the cats' identity. ''They are simply a species of fish-eating, water-loving small cats,'' he corrected me.
After learning this from Dr Khan, I no longer call them tigers. But there is another reason too; people get scared and kill these cats only because they are called "tigers". This conflict with humans is one of the main reasons behind their continuous decline throughout the country.
The English name of the species, "fishing cat", follows its behaviour. The scientific name of the animal is Prionailurus viverrinus. They are somewhat larger than domestic cats. The body is covered with dense, thick hair. Males are bigger than females. Their coat is straw-grey with a faint yellow-brown tint. The fur on the lower abdomen is white. The body is spotted, giving them a superficial similarity with tigers. Two black lines rise above the eyes from the forehead to the ears going up to the shoulder. The cheeks are light white.
Fishing cats are often confused with leopard cats, another small cat species. Although they look very similar to untrained eyes, leopard cats are somewhat smaller and more yellowish. Fishing cats have broader heads, larger teeth, and rounder and relatively smaller ears. The black line on the shoulder of the leopard cat is broken.
These cats are adept hunters, both in water and on land. They usually live in places where there are canals, bilges, rivers, ponds, and swamps. The riverine country has fishing cats in almost all wetlands. The Sundarbans have a fair number of fishing cats. However, there is no information about them living near torrential rapids.
Fishing cats prey on many small to medium-sized animals, including fish, snakes, frogs, mice, birds, rabbits, and monitor lizards. But their main food is fish. They also take domestic poultry if they get a chance or if natural food sources are scarce. They sit quietly for hours in the bushes by the water, waiting for prey. They are also very good at diving and fishing underwater. To aid in the process, their front paws have become partially webbed.
These creatures are nocturnal. They spend the day sleeping in thick bushes, wide branches of trees, or in holes. They usually go hunting after sunset. The home range of a male cat can be up to 20 square kilometres. Within every 4-5 square kilometres, there is one female cat.
Like many other cats, the fishing cat emits a type of scent (pheromone) from their body to mark their territories and communicate with each other. Female cats give birth to one to four kittens per litter after a gestation period of about 70 days. Babies stay with their mothers for nine months after birth.
Due to the rapid increase in commercial fish farming and duck farming in almost all wetlands in Bangladesh, the number of fishing cats is going drastically downhill. As the fishing cat gets into contact with humans, the local people often mistake the cat for a tiger or a tiger cub, chase them, and beat them to death. Fishing cats are also killed by eating poisoned bait, or they are trapped only to be killed afterwards.
In other cases, people, out of a wrong perception, collect the kittens and call the authorities to remove them from the locality. But the fishing cat is a wetland-dependent species. They are not built for forest life. In almost all cases, the kittens die in custody. Thus, population recovery also gets curtailed. Apart from these, water pollution, the filling of wetlands and the construction of agricultural land or houses are also other reasons for their decrease in number. The plights of the fishing cat in Bangladesh are many.