‘More research leads to more awareness’: Q&A with fishing cat expert Rama Mishra

‘More research leads to more awareness’: Q&A with fishing cat expert Rama Mishra
  • Rama Mishra is a Nepali zoologist studying the country’s little-known fishing cats, a rare and threatened species that lives in wetlands.
  • With an estimated 70% of fishing cats thought to live outside of protected areas, any conservation efforts must engage with and get the blessing of local communities, she says.
  • Even small-scale interventions have been shown to yield big results in conservation when people are aware about fishing cats, Mishra says.
  • Mishra spoke recently with Mongabay’s Abhaya Raj Joshi about how she got involved with fishing cats, their unexpected association with elephants, and what the future holds for this species.

KATHMANDU — Fishing cats are among the most elusive and understudied small cats in the world. They’re also among the most threatened, faced with habitat loss, conflict with humans, and competition from other predators.

In Nepal, a country better-known for its big cats like tigers and snow leopards, fishing cats have often been overlooked and neglected by conservationists and researchers alike. One exception is Rama Mishra, a zoologist who has dedicated her career to studying and protecting these small felines.

Mishra has been working on fishing cats (Prionailurus viverrinus) in Nepal since 2012, when she founded the Terai Fishing Cat Project. She’s also worked on jungle cats (Felis chaus), rusty-spotted cats (Prionailurus rubiginosus) and otters in different parts of Nepal, both inside and outside protected areas. Her work has seen her engage with local communities, school students and other stakeholders to raise awareness and reduce threats to fishing cats and their habitats.

Rama Mishra during an educational program in Meghauli.
Rama Mishra during an educational program in Meghauli. Image courtesy of Rama Mishra.

She’s currently studying toward a doctorate at the University of Antwerp in Belgium, where she aims to fill the knowledge gap on fishing cats in Nepal and provide recommendations for their conservation. Mongabay’s Abhaya Raj Joshi caught up with Rama Mishra to learn more about her work and passion for fishing cats. The following interview has been translated from Nepali and edited for clarity.

Mongabay: Could you tell us how you got into fishing cats?

Rama Mishra: Back in 2012, I had the opportunity to participate in a long-term ecological research training conducted by professors from Griffith University [in Australia] who used to visit Nepal regularly. As a student pursuing my master’s in zoology, I got to learn about different techniques used in the field to study different mammals, insects and birds. We spent weeks in the field, living in tents and walking 17-18 kilometers [10-11 miles] every day. It was during those days that I discovered my passion for working in the wilderness.

Initially, I wanted to study otters for my thesis. But when I found out that doing so would require financial and technical resources I didn’t have, I decided to drop the idea and focus on something else. Following the training, I found out that the National Trust for Nature Conservation [NTNC] had received some funding to study fishing cats in Chitwan National Park. NTNC staffer Babu Ram Lamichhane, whom I would go on to tie the knot with later, had found a dead fishing cat in Chitwan in 2010 and brought it to the NTNC museum. When donors saw the cat, they wanted to do something to help protect its population. That’s how the project had come about.

I decided to apply as I thought it would also support my interest in otters as both fishing cats and otters are wetland species, and camera traps deployed to study fishing cats can also capture images of otters. My proposal was selected.

Raising awareness about fishing cats during an education program.
Raising awareness about fishing cats during an education program. Image courtesy of Rama Mishra.

Mongabay: What was the experience like?

Rama Mishra: When I started the fieldwork for my thesis, I didn’t have much idea about how to go about camera-trapping small cats, let alone fishing cats. The technicians I worked with were also new to it as they were only trained in taking camera-trap images of tigers. So the results we got were not quite up to the mark. For example, the population estimate I came up with was nine to 25 individuals [in Chitwan National Park]. This was quite a big range.

Also, I wanted to do some key informant interviews about the cat. However, it was difficult to find people who could positively identify the animal even when I showed them photos. Only a single technician, who had been working for the park for the last 15-20 years, could provide some details on the behavior of the animal and where it could be found.

When I started writing the thesis, I found out that we didn’t have any information or literature on the small cat.

Mongabay: At that moment, didn’t you feel that you would have been better off studying another animal?

Rama Mishra: I felt quite the opposite, actually. I felt proud that at least I got some results on a topic only a few people had explored before. I believe that the first step toward conservation of a species is for people and researchers to realize their presence and understand their behavior.

A fishing cat trapped for studying.
A fishing cat trapped for studying. Image courtesy of Rama Mishra.

Mongabay: How did you go about studying fishing cats after graduating?

Rama Mishra: When we were done with our graduate coursework, I had told my friends that someday I will satellite-collar fishing cats and study them. For some reason, they found it amusing, but I knew I would do it one day. After graduating, I didn’t have much time to actively continue my research. I got married and had two kids as my husband worked on his own Ph.D. But I hadn’t given up.

I accompanied my husband when he was transferred to Shuklaphanta National Park, and also worked on other projects. I received a Rufford Grant to work on elephants, and that helped me gain valuable insights. For example, I found out that although elephants and fishing cats don’t seem to be related, their range in Nepal is quite similar.

It was actually the elephants that gave me a better understanding of fishing cats. When I was at Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve to work on elephants, I had a chance encounter with a herd of elephants at around sunset. I wanted to take a video of their movement, so I hid behind a bush. While there, I smelt something. It was a fresh scat of an animal; the urine hadn’t even dried up yet. It was a fishing cat scat I had been looking for for a long time. When I looked around, I found more scats. The discovery gave me clues to finding fishing cat scats, which I could study to analyze their diets. Fishing cats have specific latrine sites they use most of the time. So I was cautious not to extract all of the scat as they might move their site elsewhere.

My Ph.D. proposal was finally accepted by the University of Antwerp in 2019. My supervisor was not so sure about the feasibility of the research project as it didn’t involve charismatic species such as tigers and rhinos. But when he came to visit Nepal and I took him to Shuklaphanta, he saw why fishing cats were important. Later, I applied for funding from different sources, funds and institutions, such as the Schlumberger Foundation’s Faculty for the Future and WCN [Wildlife Conservation Nepal], who were happy to support my work.

Mishra collecting fishing cat scat in Jagdishpur.
Mishra collecting fishing cat scat in Jagdishpur. Image courtesy of Rama Mishra.

Mongabay: Now let’s move on to fishing cats and their status in Nepal.

Rama Mishra: The main issue with fishing cats in Nepal is that not a lot of people know about them. While local people in some pockets of the country know they exist, researchers and conservationists are not well-educated. Maybe it’s because an estimated 70% of fishing cats live outside of protected areas in Nepal. Maybe that’s the case because agricultural lands are a good source of food for these cats.

As the name suggests, the popular myth is that these cats only eat fish. In the Sundarbans in India, that’s been found to be true. But in the case of Nepal, they eat whatever is available to them, from birds to rodents to fish.

In Nepali, the cat is known as Malaha biralo, or Mahalo cat. There’s an interesting story behind that. The Malaha are a fishing community living in eastern Nepal. They’re known to have a unique relationship with fish as they’re solely dependent on them. They’re also known to understand the ecology of fish and when and how to fish sustainably.

Mongabay: What are some of the threats fishing cats face in Nepal?

Rama Mishra: Fishing cats were categorized as endangered in Nepal’s latest national red list assessment. But as we carry out a fresh assessment, we’re thinking of categorizing it as vulnerable based on the work that we’ve done. Globally, it remains a vulnerable species.

The cats face a host of direct and indirect threats in Nepal. Most of the direct threats are anthropogenic. People lay snares to kill animals for meat, and small cats such as fishing cats also fall prey at times. There’s also retaliatory killing, when fishing cats catch fish from people’s ponds or attack their poultry. We have also seen that some people throw rocks at cats whenever they see them, just for fun. Although the cats are small, they have big heads and that makes them look scary and violent. But they’re not violent.

Then there’s roadkill, attacks by feral and guard dogs, and hybridization with other cats such as jungle cats and house cats.

The indirect threats they face are pollution of habitat, agricultural waste, and pesticide use. We have also found glass and plastic materials in their scat, which is worrying.

Rama Mishra and an assistant with a fishing cat in a fish-farming area in Sunsari district.
Rama Mishra and an assistant with a fishing cat in a fish-farming area in Sunsari district. Image courtesy of Rama Mishra.

Mongabay: What are some of the measures that have been taken to protect them?

Rama Mishra: As I said earlier, the first step toward conservation is to identify the species and make people aware of their existence. When I realized that around 70% of the fishing cat population in Nepal lives outside of protected areas, I wanted to do something about it. For that, we conducted different engagement programs with the communities and school students around Koshi Tappu. When we interacted with the people, they would tell us that the cats come and eat their fish because they live next to a wildlife reserve. But when we told them that there were only around 10 cats in the area with 400 ponds, they realized that the cats were not a big problem.

We also provided them predator-proof corrals for their livestock. We observed that, over time, their attitude toward the animal changed, even though it wasn’t a large-scale intervention. When one of the fishing cats we collared was found inside a sewer pipe, people rescued it and let it go. We found out later that one of the people we had engaged with earlier was the one to convince the people to do so.

Mongabay: What should be the next steps for saving fishing cats?

Rama Mishra: I would say we need more research and data. We also need to focus on communities outside protected areas where these cats are found. More research will lead to more awareness, and that would go a long way in saving these cats.

Abhaya Raj Joshi is a staff writer for Nepal at Mongabay. Find him on X @arj272.

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