Fishing Cat (Prionailurus viverrinus)


The fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus) is a medium-sized wild cat of South and Southeast Asia. In 2008, the IUCN classified the fishing cat as endangered since they are concentrated primarily in wetland habitats, which are increasingly being settled, degraded and converted. Over the last decade, the fishing cat population throughout much of its Asian range declined severely. Like its closest relative, the leopard cat, the fishing cat lives along rivers, streams and mangrove swamps. It is well adapted to this habitat, being an eager and skilled swimmer.

Range Description:

The Fishing Cat has a broad but discontinuous distribution in Asia, with large gaps - some the result of its association primarily with wetlands, some the result of recent extirpation, and some supposed due to a lack of confirmed records. In Pakistan, the only known population was in the Indus river valley (Roberts 1977), but there are no recent records to confirm it still occurs. The fishing cat has been extirpated in recent years from parts of India, including the Bharatpur region of Western India (Shomita Mukherjee, Jamal Khan pers. comms. 2007), home to Keoladeo National Park, one of the few areas in India were fishing cats were studied (Mukerjee 1989, Haque and Vijayan 1993). It has possibly disappeared also from the southern Western Ghats (Nowell and Jackson 1996; Shomita Mukherjee and Jamal Khan pers. comms. 2007). However, there is also a new record from Umred, near Nagpur in central India, an area well outside of the fishing cat's known range, when a Fishing Cat that had been killed by a vehicle was found (Anon 2005). It is primarily found in the terai region of the Himalayan foothills, and eastern India into Bangladesh, where it is widely distributed and locally common in some areas (Khan 2004), although in eastern India few prime habitats remain (Kolipaka 2006). On the island of Sri Lanka, it occurs apparently all over the island, and has been found on waterways near the capital city of Colombo in degraded habitats (S. Mukherjee pers. comm. 2007).

In Southeast Asia, its distribution appears very patchy, with few recent records (Anak, W. Duckworth and R. Steinmetz, Southeast Asia mammal assessment, 2003). There are no confirmed records of the fishing cat from Peninsular Malaysia, but a 1999 camera trap image from Taman Negara National Park, an incomplete image showing only the animal's hindquarters, suggests the species occurrence here (Kawanishi and Sunquist 2003). However, the fishing cat never occurred on Taiwan, where it was mistakenly reported in the past (Nowell and Jackson, 1996; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002). Its possible occurrence (based on an old, unsubstantiated record) in southwestern China is unknown (J. Sanderson pers. comm. 2007). On the island of Java, it has become scarce and apparently restricted to a few coastal wetlands (Melisch et al. 1996). Although commonly considered to occur on the island of Sumatra, there are no definite historic records, recent records have been shown to be erroneous, and its presence there remains to be confirmed (Duckworth et al. 2009).
Countries: Native:
Bangladesh; Bhutan; Cambodia; India; Indonesia (Jawa); Lao People's Democratic Republic; Myanmar; Nepal; Sri Lanka; Thailand; Vietnam
Possibly extinct:

There is concern about the species status in Southeast Asia where it is very infrequently encountered and believed to be declining (Southeast Asia regional mammal assessment, 2003). There are very few records from camera trapping in Lao (Duckworth pers. comm. 2003) or Cambodia, although there are a sizeable number of confiscated live captive animals there (Duckworth et al. 2005). There have been declines in Thailand (Anak pers. comm. 2003) where it is very rarely encountered (Steinmetz pers. comm. 2003) and was more common in the past (Anak pers. comm. 2003). The fishing cat could not be confirmed in any reserves in Vietnam during a survey of wildlife officers (Johnsingh and Nguyen 1995). In 2004, the Fishing Cat SSP and the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden funded a field survey by Thai biologists Namfon Boontua and Budsabong Kanchanasaka to locate fishing cats in prime wetland areas in Southern Thailand. Four months of camera trapping failed to find any sign of fishing cats despite confirmed presence of numerous other wildlife species. There have also been big declines in Lao PDR (W. Duckworth pers. comm), as well as on the island of Java, where the population, possibly a valid subspecies Prionailurus viverrinus rizophoreus (Sody 1936), may qualify as Critically Endangered (Boeadi pers. comm.; Melisch et al. 1996). In India it has apparently been extirpated from large parts of its range in recent years (S. Mukherjee and J.A. Khan pers. comm. 2007), and it may no longer occur in Pakistan.
Population Trend: Decreasing


This is easily the largest of the cats in the genus Prionailurus, often weighing twice as much as the roughly house cat-sized leopard cat. Adult fishing cats may weigh from 6 to 16 kg (13 to 35 lb). The head-and-body length ranges from 66 to 86 cm (26 to 34 in), plus a relatively short tail length of 25 to 33 cm (9.8 to 13 in). Fishing cats are powerfully built, with short, muscular limbs and a robust body. This species has a distinctly long, narrow face distinctive from all other cats. The coarse fur is brownish-gray overlaid with somewhat variable dark markings. Black spots run longitudinally across the body while 6 to 8 dark stripes run from behind the eyes to the nape. The underside fur is paler and longer, often being overlaid with spots. The paws are webbed. The face is spotted and the ears are short and rounded, being black on the backside and having a white spot in the middle of the front.

Ecology and behavior

The solitary living fishing cats are thought to be primarily nocturnal. They are very much at home in the water and can swim long distances, even under water. Females have been reported to range over areas of 4 to 6 km2 (1.5 to 2.3 sq mi), while males range over 16 to 22 km2 (6.2 to 8.5 sq mi). Adults have been observed to make a "chuckling" sound and likely have other calls similar to those of domestic cats.
As the name implies, fish is their main prey. A one-year study of scats in India's Keoladeo National Park found that fish comprised approximately three-quarters of the diet, with the remainder consisting of birds, insects, and small rodents. Molluscs, reptiles, including snakes, amphibians and carrion, up to the size of full-grown domestic cattle, may supplement the diet. They hunt along the edges of watercourses, grabbing prey from the water, and sometimes diving in to catch prey further from the banks. They mark their territory using cheek-rubbing, head rubbing, chin rubbing, neck rubbing and urine-spraying to leave scent marks. They also sharpen their claws and display flehmen. Fishing cats may mate at any time of the year, although most commonly between January and February. The female constructs a den in a secluded area such as a dense thicket of reeds, and gives birth to two to three kittens after a gestation period of 63–70 days. The kittens weigh around 170 g (6.0 oz) at birth, and are able to actively move around by the age of one month. They begin to play in water and to take solid food at about two months, but are not fully weaned for six months. They reach full adult size at around eight and a half months, acquire their adult canine teeth at eleven months, and are sexually mature at fifteen months. They live for up to ten years in captivity Fishing Cats are strongly associated with wetland. They are typically found in swamps and marshy areas, oxbow lakes, reed beds, tidal creeks and mangrove areas and are more scarce around smaller, fast-moving watercourses. Along watercourses they have been recorded at elevations up to 1,525 m, but most records are from lowland areas. Although fishing cats are widely distributed through a variety of habitat types (including both evergreen and tropical dry forest: Rabinowitz and Walker 1991), their occurrence tends to be highly localized (Nowell and Jackson 1996). Fishing cats are good swimmers, and unlike most other small cats may prey primarily on fish rather than small mammals. A one-year study of scats in India's Keoladeo National Park found that fish comprised 76% of the diet, followed by birds (27%), insects (13%) and small rodents last (9%) (Haque and Vijayan 1993). Molluscs, reptiles and amphibians are also taken (Haque and Vijayan 1993, Mukherjee 1989). However, they are capable of taking large mammal prey, including small chital fawns (Nowell and Jackson 1996, Sunquist and Sunquist 2002), and have been seen scavenging livestock carcasses and tiger kills (Nowell and Jackson 1996). Predation on small domestic livestock and dogs has also been reported (Nowell and Jackson 1996). The only radio-telemetry study took place in Nepal's Chitwan National Park in the early 1990s. Cats were active only at night and spent most of their time in dense tall and short grasslands, sometimes well away from water. Home ranges of three females were 4?6 kmē; that of a single male was larger at 16?22 kmē (JLD Smith pers comm. in Sunquist and Sunquist 2002).
Fishing cats have been observed in degraded habitats, such as near aquaculture ponds with little vegetation outside the Indian city of Calcutta (P. Sanyal in Anon. 1989).
Systems: Terrestrial; Freshwater

Major Threat(s):

Wetland destruction and degradation is the primary threat faced by the species (Nowell and Jackson 1996). Over 45% of protected wetlands and 94% of globally significant wetlands in Southeast Asia are considered threatened (Dugan 1993). Threats to wetlands include human settlement, draining for agriculture, pollution, and excessive hunting, wood-cutting and fishing. In addition, clearance of coastal mangroves over the past decade has been rapid in Tropical Asia. The depletion of fish stocks from over-fishing is prevalent in many Asian wetland environments and is likely to be a significant threat. While fishing cats appear relatively tolerant of modified habitats, they are also vulnerable to accidental snaring, while generally not being a commercially valued species (Nowell and Jackson 1996). Widespread indiscriminate snaring, trapping and poisoning are believed to underlie recent declines in Southeast Asia, where fishing cats have not been found even in seemingly intact wetland habitats (Southeast Asia regional mammal assessment, 2003). Kolipaka (2006) reported that fishermen have killed and eaten fishing cats which they say had taken fish from their nets. Wetlands are under-represented in the matrix of Asian protected areas (W. Duckworth pers. comm.). Fishing cat skins have been found in illegal trade in India for many years (Sunquist and Sunquist 2002, Anon 2005).

 Conservation Actions:

 Included on CITES Appendix II. Protected by national legislation over most of its range. Hunting prohibited: Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Thailand. Hunting regulations apply in Lao PDR. No protection outside protected areas: Bhutan, Vietnam (Nowell and Jackson 1996). The Fishing Cat is confirmed to occur in protected areas including the Sundarbans (Bangladesh and India), Chitwan (Nepal), Corbett, Dudwha, and Kaziranga (India) (IUCN Cats Red List workshop 2007), Khao Sam Roi Yot and Thale Noi (Thailand: Cutter and Cutter 2009), Botum-Sakor (Cambodia: Royan 2009) and Ujung Kulon and Pulau Dua (Java, Indonesia: A. Compost in Duckworth et al. 2009).
Conservation of the species depends on adequate protection of remaining wild wetlands in Asia, and prevention of indiscriminate trapping, snaring and poisoning.