A Cat In Hand Is Worth Two In The Marsh

With my research permit in hand, I was off to find myself a fishing cat!

It was one of the most exciting moments of my life. I was finally getting away from my desk and that awful chair! I’m sure you all know what I mean. Having a lumpy chair to sit on all day is the WORST! You spend more time trying to get comfortable than actually doing work. Anyway, I was all excited. I had my homemade trap cage all ready for the field, my collars were programmed to perfection and my equipment was all neatly packed in a bag. I was ready to collar my first fishing cat.

A week before setting the trap, I made one last trip to the site, to speak to the wildlife rangers at the Attidiya field office. Everything was fine till this point, and then suddenly, everything was not. The rangers told me that there were plans to dredge the marsh. On my way back to office I did a round, and noticed a cluster of JCB’s here and a cluster of other heavy machinery there. Already the Bellanwila section was being dredged, so why were they expanding this madness? This was not good for me, because now everything would be postponed. Why? Because I couldn’t really set trap cages with heavy machinery rumbling around, now could I? What made it worse was that Dr. Jim Sanderson was visiting and now he’d miss the start of this project! Oh well, since there was no point sobbing over this news, I decided to find out what could be done.

In the meantime, Dr. Sanderson landed. What an honour it was to meet him! I mean, he is one of the few wild cat experts in the world (as we’ve discussed before, big cats get much more attention, even in the scientific community)! And here he was, listening to me talk about my research.

Jim was with us for about two weeks, so during that time we decided to drive him through prime fishing cat habitat here in Colombo. We were on the Kotte – Rajagiriya Road, at around 1pm in the sweltering heat when he casually asked us how long it would take for us to reach the destination. We told him we were already starting to drive through it. A second later, all we heard was a “WHAT?”

It was then that Jim told us that he had never come across any reports of fishing cats living in such urban environments. Sure, in Thailand they are found on the fringes of the city, close to large agricultural areas and shrimp farms. But slap bang in the middle of the city? That was completely new! Not only that, but with the number of cats needing relocation, and the number that became road kill regularly, it was clear that Colombo had quite a healthy population of them.

A day or two later I got a phone call from a Wildlife Department vet, telling me that there was a fishing cat awaiting relocation. They wanted to know if I would like to have him for the study. Of course I wanted him! After getting off the phone I did a little happy dance in my head.

The cat was currently being held in the Horagolla National Park, so Jim and I set out to see him. Horagolla is a tiny little park found in the Gampaha District. Actually it’s the smallest one we have. Once we got there, we were met by Mr. Gaminie Samarakoon, who sat and gave us the lowdown on fishing cats in the area. According to him, lots of fishing cats get caught stealing chickens, and people hate them. Well, maybe hate is a strong word. People don’t quite fancy them, and want them out. Luckily for us, unlike in Thailand, fishing cats aren’t trapped, killed and eaten. Instead, they are usually handed over to wildlife officials and later relocated. But the thing is, no one knew what happened to the cats once they were released in a new environment.

Jim told us about studies done in Chile, where pumas (Puma concolor) are often considered a pest, often preying on pigs and cattle, and wildlife officials wanted the animals out due to the number of complaints from farmers. So scientists got permission to collar five pumas which were to be relocated miles (and I mean miles) away from their original destination. Everyone thought that the cats would be like Yay new home!, but the GPS collar data showed a different story. Every single one of the collared cats made a beeline back home. It was the same with the Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis) that were reintroduced back into North America. The data from the collared cats showed that they were all making their way back to Canada. Would relocated fishing cats do the same things? That was something we all wanted to find out. And who better to enlighten us than the very fishing cat we came to see?

After filling us in on fishing cats in general, Mr. Samarakoon took us to see the animal. Since the main holding pens were still under construction, the cat was kept in an unused trap cage. He seemed well enough, except for a large portion of skin rubbed raw along his nose, which he most probably got while trying to escape from the chicken coop he was caught in, but other than that he seemed to be quite a healthy looking cat. Annoyed, but healthy.

After making the necessary arrangements, we agreed that the cat would be transported to Colombo within the next few weeks, and after final vet checks would be fitted with a collar and then released. At last, my study was ready for take off!

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