IUCN Red List Status: Vulnerable (IUCN 3.1)
National Red List Status: Endangered

When compared with a house cat, who is either pampered beyond all means or gets yelled at for eating off the counter (whatever is appropriate), the fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus) is a more hardened, salt of the earth type. They are four times the size of a normal house cat and their tubby frame is supported with rippling muscles that show off their “everyday I’m hustlin” lifestyle. The short and coarse fur which covers them has a lovely olive yellowish-grey color to it and their whole body is teeming with stripes and spots, which looks like morse code (good luck trying to decipher what it says). Each fishing cat has his or her own unique set of stripes and spots and all of them have four stripes that run from their forehead to their back, and two stripes which run from their eyes to the side of their faces, like some cool Maori tribal tattoo. It’s this cryptic couture that gave birth to its local names, “Andhun Diviya / අඳුන් දිවියා or Handhun Diviya / හඳුන් දිවියා” (Andhun / අඳුන් refers to the dark complexion of their coat. Handhun / හඳුන් on the other hand, refers to sandalwood. Not because they smell seductively of Rani Sandalwood Soap – which is highly unlikely – but because the sandalwood bark has somewhat the same color palette as their pelage.

Fishing cats have a comparatively large head with a broad forehead and an elongated muzzle, all attached to a muscle bound neck, which gives them their signature village gangster (chandi / චණ්ඩි) look. Their uncharacteristically cute, button-like ears may look adorable but they are like satellite dishes when it comes to picking up sounds without moving their heads, so good luck sneaking up on them or any cat for that matter – a cat’s ear is controlled by 32 muscles, giving them the ability to rotate them a full 180 degrees. The back of a fishing cat’s ears are black with a bright white spot in the middle, which might serve as a false eye to deter predators, like with tigers, or serve as a visual cue to the cubs when following their mother. Plus, they have the ability to plug up their ears, to prevent water from getting in, when they take a dive to catch fish (the perfect adaptation to have around annoying people. Worthless conversation? Plug up your ears! It’s that easy). When talking about their fur, they have two layers. The first is like thermal underwear, which you would wear in teeth-chattering cold climates to protect the valuables, as it regulates core body temperature and acts as a waterproof barrier (this same arrangement can be seen in polar bears). The second layer sprouts from the first as long guard hairs and is what gives them their characteristic color palette. Their tails are about half their body length and are thick, and patterned with incomplete rings which end with a solid black tip.

Fishing cats are adapted to a semi aquatic lifestyle in wetlands, marshlands and other habitats that have a good source of flowing water. Which means they are not afraid to get wet (made you look at your cat with disdain, didn’t I?). But this does not mean that you can let off a sigh of relief and pop into the nearest wetland and adopt one. You will be in for a rude awakening, as they can be quite aggressive when they want to! Much like anyone who doesn’t want to be bothered! So, as you do with all wild animals, respect their personal space and privacy at all times and observe from a distance. They are expert anglers (no, they don’t fish with bait and hook) and how they net fish is by using their paws to scoop fish out of the water (if the water is shallow) or by diving headfirst (if it is a bit deep). They are known to tap the surface of the water (to mimic an insect) to lure fish to the surface, sort of like a cruel knock knock joke (“knock knock – who’s there? – Imma fish – Imma fish who? – Imma fish you”). 

A very widespread misconception is that fishing cats have webbed feet. Well they’re not ducks to have webbed feet, and what they do have is this crude, underdeveloped webbing of sorts between their toes. And it turns out that this webbing isn’t any different to that of a bobcat (Lynx rufus), though it does look slightly fleshier than a caracal’s (Caracal caracal, keep in mind though, that this is a dead caracal, so its skin might be stiffer than normal). Webbing, or no webbing, this has not been a setback at all to these magnificent creatures as they have found their niche in wetlands and claimed it as theirs for the taking. Just because they are adapted to hunt fish effectively does not mean that they are strict pescatarians (meaning individuals who only eat fish and not meat) but they do hunt rodents, reptiles, and crustaceans.

Because of their ninja lifestyle, very little is known of their behaviour. They are known to be solitary, territorial animals and a male’s territory usually overlaps with the territories of several females. They have been observed marking their territories with strong smelling urine and by rubbing their heads and cheeks on tree surfaces and such. Because of their elusive nature, little is known about their vocal cues but they have been observed making hisses (no they don’t speak parseltongue), guttural chuckles or quacks (now don’t try to make a guttural chuckle you’ll just end up coughing. Believe me I just did. The quack sounds like an angry Donald Duck yelling his heart out after realising that Pluto did his business on the front porch, AFTER he stepped on the “business”) and the occasional demanding “meow” in a low pitch. Come mating season, both sexes have a specific “bedroom voice” vocal cues called “chittering” where the female indicates that she’s ready and the male indicates that he’s being submissive. After copulation, two kittens per litter are born after a 63-70 day gestation period into a den inside a tree hollow, or a narrow rock opening etc. A newborn kitten weighs around 170 grams (the approximate weight of a full Milo UHT packet). 

The biggest threat that they experience currently is habitat destruction. Every day, when you log onto your social media or listen to the news, there is at least one news piece about unwarranted forest and wetland clearing, which causes irreversible damage to the world’s fragile ecosystems. Not just fishing cats, but an untold number of flora and fauna will be forever lost if we do not voice our strong opinions. Together, we can achieve much more and come forth to give voice to the voiceless.

IUCN Redlist Status: Least Concern (IUCN 3.1)
National Redlist Status: Least Concern

With a permanent look of indifference about everything plastered over their faces (resting monitor face) and a periodic flicking of their forked tongues going on (which is how they analyze the chemical composition of the air), Asian water monitors (Varanus salvator salvator) are more than what meets the eye. Plus, the subspecies found in Sri Lanka is morphologically unique! Which means that their size, shape and the structure is completely different to the subspecies found in other countries. Locally they are called “Kabaragoya / කබරගොයා” or “Kabaraya / කබරයා” where ”kabara” means spotted and ”goya” means like a lizard.

Asian water monitors – let’s call them water monitors from now on – are quite formidable creatures and they happen to be the second heaviest lizard species in the world (komodo dragons take up first place). They are excellent swimmers, which in no small part is aided by their muscular tail as they keep their limbs tucked to their sides (similar to marine iguanas. Another example would be the Zilla from the 1998 movie “Godzilla”) while swimming. That tail not only aids in swimming, but its tapered, whip-like structure has enabled them to use their tails with deadly precision to defend themselves.

Water monitors are built for survival in their habitat, packing an impressive array of sharp claws (they are excellent tree climbers), serrated teeth, powerful jaw muscles, and a durable hide (which has found its way into the local vernacular as “කබර හම / kabara hama” to mean “thick skinned”). Speaking about their sharp claws, there are local legends about thieves using water monitors and land monitors as impromptu grappling hooks because once a monitor grabs onto something, it would die before letting go. Their grip strength is that powerful! Their keen sense of smell helps them locate carrion from far away, and coupled with the fact that monitors do not monitor what they consume (their diet includes fish, snakes, frogs, crabs, rodents, young crocodiles, and if the occasion calls for it, turtles too) has earned it good graces – and a huge respect for its personal space – with the locals, because they take their  duties as scavenger and pest control agent very seriously.

Image taken from the Urban Wildlife Map.

This buffet approach to their carnivorous diet enables them to grow to truly unprecedented dimensions, where the largest ever recorded was caught in Sri Lanka and measured 10.5 feet (that’s a half a foot less than a standard Maruti Suzuki Alto 800, if we were to scale).

If you do happen to see two water monitors engaged in what seems like an impromptu sumo match (wrestling with each other standing on their hind legs), they are not mating, or hugging, or dancing. But are most probably resolving some kind of issue – maybe one did cross into the other’s territory or vice versa. When they do mate, the male climbs on top of the female and the bodies look entwined. After copulation, the female lays a batch of five to 22 leathery eggs in a hole on level ground or a vertical embankment (batch sizes vary with the size of the female).

Water monitors are extremely adaptable, but their survival depends on the fact that there is no extensive loss of vegetation and aquatic resources, something which is dwindling faster than they can adapt. It is up to us to preserve and protect a world that both water monitors and we can call home.

If you happen to notice that one has made its way into your own garden, don’t panic! Close any entry points that lead into your house, and patiently wait until it goes away. They really mind their own business and if you try to show it the business end of a sharp stick or do anything to irritate it, it will defend itself (much like you and I would). So, keep calm and just wait it till it goes away.

Urban Wildlife Series: Test your artistic skills

We asked our followers on social media to show us their artistic talents by colouring in the otter this week. Here are the entries we got!

IUCN Redlist Status: Near Threatened (IUCN 3.1)
National Redlist Status: Vulnerable [B1ab(iii)]
Image taken from the Urban Wildlife Map.

How old were you when you learned that there were Eurasian otters (Lutra lutra) in Sri Lanka, among otter.. I mean other news? I was well into my mid twenties when I found out and I was, to say the least, otterly… ”sigh”, utterly surprised, as I assume you are too. These cuddly critters with majestic whiskers that can give any member of a biker gang, or any 19th century philosopher a run for their money, have called Sri Lanka home for quite a long time. They elude the eye of the public because of their nocturnal or crepuscular (being active during twilight hours) habits. By outward appearance, they sort of look like a mongoose, but unlike mongooses, otters have sleek, smooth fur (making them look as if they have been meticulously combed down by a loved one) and webbed feet with well developed claws. They also have a cute whitish bib that runs down from their chin to chest (they have such good table manners!) which further enables to distinguish the species with ease. In Sinhala, they are known as “diya ballaa / දිය බල්ලා” or “water dog”. I would love to meet the person who named them as such because no self respecting dog that I know would voluntarily take a bath, nor be near a water source unless to drink from it, much to the chagrin of their owners.

They prefer living close to water and their tubby streamlined bodies, equipped with a thick tail, and webbed feet, make them swimmers par excellence. Usually their forelegs are in prayer while they hunt for food and are used to manipulate prey while eating. To further aid them with swimming, their bones are quite dense, thus reducing buoyancy. Their skill in water is matched only by fish, penguin and seals. Sometimes, several otters group together to drive fish to the shallows so that they can catch them with ease. 

The same body structure which makes them Olympic level swimmers, hinders their ability to walk well on land, giving them an adorable prancing gait which will make you stop and go “awww”. They do love a flowing stream but wetlands and tanks will also do, as long as there are dense thickets of vegetation nearby, for them to get their much needed R&R. If you are really lucky, you might see them in the open, near a paddyfield. This is not because they want to pursue a future in agriculture, but because they want to migrate from one stream habitat to the next. Plus the embankments or “niyara / නියර ” as we call them in Sinhala, are teeming with freshwater crabs locally known as “Kakkuttoe / කක්කුට්ටෝ”. Otters help out the local farmers by consuming these crustaceans, as these freshwater crabs make it their life’s work tunneling the living daylights out of these embankments, rendering them useless in the process. 

Otter filmed running into the thickets at the Baddegana Wetland Park. Filmed by Park Manager, Narmada Dangampola.

Their diet which comprises nearly 80% of fish, varies depending on a myriad of local factors such as location, rainfall (more rains mean less visibility in streams making it harder to catch prey like fish), exposure of prey (crabs unlike fish, move slow so it is easy to pick them off), and prey size and availability. If prey is scarce and luck is in their favor, they have the talent to net a sizeable bird like a white-breasted waterhen (Amaurornis phoenicurus) or “korawakkaa / කොරවක්කා” as they are known locally. They do hunt small mammals like rodents but do so very rarely. 

Otters are highly territorial and irrespective of their size, may rule over a large territory (these range from 1 – 40 km in length), if the conditions are right (right amount of prey, suitable water sources, deforestation to a minimum). However, otters go guns blazing only when a member of the same-sex disregards boundaries. But if a female crosses into a male’s territory, he won’t mind her being there. Otters use their droppings or “spraints’ to mark their territory, and you know something is up when the dropping of a certain animal has a specific name (otters are an important part of British culture and folklore). The word spraint comes from the old French word “espraindre” which means “to squeeze out”. If you happen to have violent toothpaste related imagery after this reveal, please accept our apologies.

Natchev et al 2015. Dietary specifications reflect the feeding behaviour of the European otter (Lutra lutra) in “Strandzha” Natural Park (Bulgaria).

They are usually solitary animals and the only groupings you see would be during mating season, when the otter lads go fishing or when an otter mum is with her pups. Otters do not have a fixed breeding season and they breed in the water. Their gestation period (the time taken for an otter pup to develop inside the womb) is roughly about two months, and newborn pups are about 10% the weight of their mother. Like warrens for rabbits, otters have holts (no, not Captain Holt from Brooklyn 99 or halt as in a bus halt) to rear their young. Holts are always burrowed near a good, clean source of water. Pups are born blind and in their early months, they appear to be afraid of water (now the whole Diya Balla shebang makes sense!) until their mothers coax them into it. The young stay with their mother even after nursing ends, until she mates again.

Because they rarely get mentioned or noticed by locals, they enjoy a level of security which is unheard of by many species. But the greatest threat they face is from deforestation and destruction of their aquatic habitats. If the senseless destruction of the wetlands and water pollution continues, they will literally fade into nothingness, leaving those who knew them with memories, and those who never got the chance to know them, with bewilderment.

Urban Wildlife Series: Test your artistic skills

We asked our followers on social media to show us their artistic talents by colouring in the otter this week. Here are the entries we got!