Endangered Cats, Endangered Lands

After about 2 years of science, it is finally time to get the proverbial ball rolling on the whole awareness aspect of my work. I’m a strong believer that awareness and education plays a massive role in conservation efforts. Yes, science does a lot, but most people aren’t scientists. Have you tried reading a journal article? They are really technical and unless you know the background, can be quite daunting. So how could I expect someone from a non-science background to read the sciency stuff? But, awareness is fun, so I am glad that we got funds to do this!

Anyway, 2016 is going to be the year of all things awareness – though we want every year to be like this. With funding secured from the US Embassy, Sri Lanka, we will be conducting thirty awareness programmes targeting thirty public schools in Colombo, and between those programmes there will be two large workshops for stakeholders, government officials and the general public.

So we launched “Endangered Cats, Endangered Lands” and what better month to kick things off than in Fishing Cat February (thank you Linda, for coining this phrase). The Sri Lanka Land Reclamation & Development Corporation – which has supported my work in more ways than one – was kind enough to host the initial programme at their Thalawathugoda Biodiversity Study Park, which also happens to be one of my study sites. One hundred students from 10 different public schools around Colombo were invited to attend the event, along with their teachers.

Each student was given a small goodie bag when they registered. Actually it was more like a goodie pack, since there was no real bag involved. They each were given a notebook, a pencil, a bookmark (one of three) and a small How to Identify a Fishing Cat poster. Each school was given a large What is a Wetland poster as well.

After the usual introductory speeches, my fellow small cat conservationist, Ashan Thudugala (he studies fishing cats in the montane forests of Kandy, through his project Save Fishing Cats) gave the kids a presentation on the wild cats of Sri Lanka, where the rusty, the jungle cat and the leopard were briefly discussed. Then, fishing cats habits, threats and threat mitigation was discussed in greater detail.

Everyone was then separated into 4 groups, and sent off in various directions to attend the field sessions. There was one on water quality, one on wetland flora, one on wetland birds and one (which I was in charge of) on fishing cats. I usually try and make my talks as entertaining as possible, and for this particular one I had brought along my trap cage, collar, camera trap and my trusty bottle of cat lure. Luckily for me, I had Ashan and Vinod (project manager at the Federation of Environmental Organisations) who were able to translate my rantings into Sinhala. There were four main points about my field work that I went over.

One: Identifying FC presence in a potential habitat
Looking for scats and tracks is one of the first things I do, second only to figuring out if the habitat has everything a fishing cat needs to survive. I explained the difference between carnivore and herbivore scat, and the differences between dog and cat pugs.

Two: Camera trapping
Once we have identified fishing cat presence – or suspected presence –  we start camera trapping. This is the best way to properly confirm that fishing cats (or whatever other species you’re studying) actually lives in the habitat. I passed around a camera so that the kids had an idea of what it looks like, and then I showed them some pictures that I had taken of them walking into the study site. That helped me drive home the point about the cameras being a non-invasive method of observing animal behaviour. None of the kids had noticed the camera that I tied along the path earlier that morning.

I also passed around my bottle of fishing cat lure for the kids to smell. It’s essentially cat pee (no cats were harmed during collection!) and very, very old salmon, all blended up and poured into a little bottle. The longer it stews in there, the better it smells!

Three: Trapping
Now that we have established that fishing cats are in fact in our study area,  we move to the trapping side of things. Maduranga, my field assistant, helped demonstrate how the trap works, and we even had some kids come up and try lifting the cage*.

*This particular cage weighs 12kg, and I wanted the kids to try carrying it to get an understanding of how heavy a fishing cat was. Fishing cats can reach up to 16kg as adults!


Four: Collaring
Finally, the collaring. I went over how it was done and showed them photographs and videos of how the cat was tranquilised by the DWC vets. They loved the photographs of the cat’s teeth. I doubt any of them imagined that those canines (the teeth not the dogs) were actually that big. I then passed the collar around, before ending the session with a map showing the GPS locations from one of the cats I collared and released last July.

Now with 10 schools ticked off our list we have 20 left. Something tells me that this year is going to be one wild ride!

A big thanks to Milindu Tissera for taking these awesome shots!

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