Saving the Fishing CatBy Gerry Bishop; photos by Morgan Heim
No one knows for sure how many of these water-loving cats are prowling through Asian wetlands. But we do know that they need our help.
There’s nothing else in the world quite like a fishing cat. Its favorite food, as you might guess, is fish. And to catch its prey, this furry fisher often dives right into a stream, river, or swamp. It may even swim after a fish—sometimes completely underwater. The cat’s thick, waterproof fur keeps its skin dry. Its partly webbed paws work as paddles. And its tail helps the cat turn quickly, the way a rudder works for a boat.
Fishing cats once lived in many parts of South and Southeast Asia—wherever there were good places to catch fish. But now the cats are found only here and there (see map). Very little is known about these rare and mysterious creatures. And very little has been done to keep them from disappearing. But in the country of Thailand, at least, that has begun to change—thanks to a scientist named Passanan Cutter, nicknamed “Namfon.”
Namfon has been studying fishing cats since 2003. Her goal has always been the same: to learn all she can about them—and then use what she’s learned to help the cats survive. Her work isn’t easy, but she’s lucky to have some really hardworking helpers, including a boy named Earth.
A fishing cat named Steamed Egg has taken a “selfie” by wa lking in front of a hidden camera near a house in Thailand. The cat’s movement triggered the camera to snap the photo. Around the cat’s neck is a radio collar. It sends out signals that help Namfon track the cat.
DEADLY SHRIMP FARMS
Ponds for raising shrimp cover land where mangrove swamps once were. When people destroyed the swamps to make the ponds, fishing cats lost much of their natural habitat. People also raised crops and built houses on some of the cats’ habitat. So, in many parts of Thailand, fishing cats now are gone or just hanging on.
Where fishing cats still survive, scientists must track the cats to study them. Here, Namfon shows a group of visiting students how she uses an antenna to pick up radio signals. The signals come from radio collars worn by cats that were captured and then released back into the wild.
DOING THE MATH
Earth and other helpers study maps that show where radio signals from collared cats have come from. They use math to figure out the exact places where the cats can be found.
A cat named Rip Ear turns toward a camera as it snaps his picture. Rip Ear is hunting for prey near a farmer’s fish pond. The swamp where Rip Ear lived was destroyed, so now he has to find food wherever he can.
Some farmers kill fishing cats that roam onto their properties, fearing that the cats will attack their chickens and ducks. But Namfon is teaching farmers and villagers that the cats often do more good than harm by also eating mice and rats.
Earth helps Namfon’s assistant Ruj hide a trap that may solve a mystery. A nearby farmer reported that something was stealing fish from his pond, and he wanted to know what it was. Next day, the mystery was solved: Inside the trap was a fishing cat. Once the farmer learned that the culprit was a rare fishing cat, he wasn’t as unhappy about getting some of his fish stolen. Namfon put a collar on the cat and set it free. She now has a new subject she can study.
SET TO GO . . . ALMOST
Namfon gently lifts a fishing cat and moves it into a cage that serves as a “recovery room.” She had trapped the cat and given it a sleeping drug. That allowed her to carefully check its health and put a radio collar on it. Now she needs to let it wake up in safety before releasing it back into the wild.
When a fishing cat is captured, every part of it gets a checkup. Here, Ruj measures the width of a cat’s paw. Because fishing cats are so rare, very few have been caught and studied. Every bit of information that Namfon can gather will help her and other scientists learn more about this rare, threatened, one- of-a-kind cat.
CAN WE SAVE THEM?
Namfon and her helpers are doing their best to learn more about fishing cats and to get people to care about them and try to save them. But much more needs to be done.
Here’s one way you and your family can help: Be sure that the shrimp and other seafood you eat have been caught or raised in ways that do little harm to the environment. To find out which kinds of seafood are OK, go to seafoodwatch.org/seafood-recommendations.