Urban Wildlife Series: Fishing Cat (Prionailurus viverrinus)

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.

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