The Industrious Cat

My submission to Small Wild Cat Conservation News 2016, with a few additional titbits.

Getting people in Sri Lanka to pay attention to anything that does not involve the Sri Lankan Leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya) is definitely a challenge. Many do not find smaller mammals very interesting, which makes getting funding from local companies especially hard. However, in November 2015, I approached MAS Active Linea Intimo (MAS ­LI), a branch of MAS Holdings, which is one of the largest manufacturers of apparel in the region. Chances are, they manufacture a lot of the fancy sports wear you own! The CEO of MAS ­LI, Chelan Goonetilleke is a known wildlife enthusiast, so I tried my luck in pitching my proposal to him. While driving to the factory in the Board of Investments (BOI) zone in Biyagama, east of Colombo, I kept going over my presentation in my mind, but tried to play it cool. I had been turned down numerous times before, and Chelan had only 30 minutes to sit with me, so I knew I was not going to get a second shot at it.

When entering the BOI I was shocked. I expected a concrete jungle. The BOI is an industrial zone after all, but what I was driving through was the complete opposite. There was more greenery than anything else. Trees and thick ground cover sprouted out from every direction. An intact wetland and forested area surrounded the whole zone, and small creeks and waterways enclose each separate company. I felt that this was my golden ticket.

My initial meeting with Chelan was a success. He sat with me for two hours discussing the project, and how he would definitely help fund me for a year. I promised that I would include the wetland and his factory premises in my research and told him that this would be a fantastic opportunity to prove that industrial zones can be “eco­-friendly” to some extent. Just before leaving, he asked me to find him a fishing cat in the premises. I said I would.

A couple of weeks later, my field assistant Maduranga and I trudged through the MAS­ LI wetland, armed with camera­ traps. It was prehistoric, like something out of Jurassic Park. I was half expecting a Velociraptor to start chasing us. The muddy ground showed large pug marks, which didn’t look like they belonged to a dog. I knew that the next largest mammal would have to be a fishing cat. I had only six camera traps at the time, which needed to be used across two study sites. We camera­ trapped for about four months in the wetland with no results, though we did come across numerous fishing cat pug marks.

We did however, obtain photographs of Rusty­-spotted Cat (Prionailurus rubiginosus) kittens (generously shared by MAS LI staff). Two separate litters to a female that used the factory’s biomas boiler’s mountain of firewood as a den. During both instances (2013 and 2015) the kittens were discovered when workers heard their cries while the firewood was being moved around. Since the mountain of wood was highly unstable during these times, they were removed from their den and put back once work was complete. The staff who were in charge of this process were happy to mention that during both instances, the mother came and retrieved her young.

After months of having no fishing cats on camera, it started to get a bit embarrassing, especially towards the end of the first year of funding. I was also getting ready to approach Chelan about a second year of funding. Though he was keen to fund me, he had to prove that it was a worthwhile investment to the other directors who seemed a bit skeptical. I didn’t blame them. To someone else, I seemed a bit delusional. Fishing cats in an industrial zone. Yeah right!

By this time I had 20 new cameras, thanks to the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, and armed with 12 of them Maduranga, Fi (she was back for three months) and I headed straight back to the BOI. We were a little frustrated, and maybe we were imagining fishing cats in the area. It could have all been in our heads. Maybe we were willing these dog pug marks to be fishing cat. What if we were stuck in a really bad version of Groundhog Day? This was too stressful. I should have just become an artist, it would have been a more laid back profession.

The cameras were set up in April, just as the monsoon was starting. We all remember those three days of torrential rain right? It was super fun having gloomy cold days, but it turned out that half of Colombo went underwater… Yes underwater, and this included both study sites as well. I’m not talking about 2 feet of water. I’m talking about 6-8 feet of water! Luckily for us the Thalawathugoda cameras resurfaced early once the sluice gate at the site was open. The BOI cameras suffered a much worse fate. They remained underwater for about 2 weeks, since we could not go past certain areas in Biyagama due to the flooded roads.

By the time we got through, Maduranga and I entered a completely different wetland. Gone were the lush green ferns (Fi Fern was also gone by this time) and moss covered logs. In its place was mud and debris. Debris tangled in the high branches of invasive Wel atta (Annona glabra) trees. There was a clear mud line as well.

What about my cameras? Well. They were all dead. Every. Single. One. Muddy water gushed out of each unit that we opened. Maduranga and I were crestfallen.

Back home I cleaned up the cards and thankfully they all worked! Each camera had taken only 1 weeks worth of photographs before the water level slowly raised and eventually submerged them all. The photographs were fascinating though, seeing the water get higher and higher almost looked surreal, and we even had the porcupine swimming across the swollen creeks as they went in search of tubers and pond apples.

Then suddenly WHAM! There stood an animal that I did not expect to see. An enormous fishing cat. Its muscular body posing for the photograph. Rushing through the other cards, I got four more hits. Three inside the wetland and one INSIDE the factory premises! INSIDE! It had jumped the boundary fence to hunt in the MAS LI activity centre! It took me eight months to get to this moment. I was not crazy, or imagining things. The fishing cats were there!

I fired a text to Manisha, (she handles the project logistics on the MAS­ LI end) and she was over the moon. She laughed about the fact that she could now walk through her office with her head held high!

/cue happy dance


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