In a Bid to Conserve the Vulnerable
By Risidra Mendis
As the sun sets and darkness slowly takes over, Chaminda Jayasekara sets off on a mission. With his ‘weapon’ of choice - the camera - he is on the lookout for a particular nocturnal creature - the fishing cat - within the premises of Jetwing Vil Uyana in Sigiriya.
Observing nocturnal animals is not an easy task but for Jayasekara, there isn’t a better time than night to start his work, observing and capturing rare photographs of this animal that is classified as ‘Vulnerable’ in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.
Observing the fishing cat
Jayasekara is the Assistant Manager at Jetwing Vil Uyana and has been observing these creatures since 2014. “All three species of recorded small cat species in Sri Lanka: the fishing cat, the jungle cat, and the rusty-spotted cat, have been recorded within Jetwing Vil Uyana premises. Since the discovery of fishing cats at the hotel premises, I have started observations and camera traps have been installed to monitor the behaviour of fishing cats and their movements and to identify their territories,” Jayasekara said.
He said while studies via visual observations, pug marks and scat identification were carried out from the year 2014, further studies started using the camera traps since 2017. “Up to date, six individual fishing cats have been identified based on facial markings, spot patterns, size, frequent locations as captured in camera trap footages, photographs, and physical observations,” Jayasekara explained.
Book on fishing cats
His many years of research and hard work are now out in a book, The Fishing Cat – Elusive Feline in the Wetlands. Unlike the other cat species fishing cats love to be in the water and wetlands. They are good swimmers and tree climbers. The size of a fully grown fishing cat is 57 - 85 cm in length, with a 25 - 30 cm tail and their weight varies from 6 - 12 kg. The males are slightly bigger than the females and as they are solitary creatures, males and females come together mostly for mating. In Sri Lanka the fishing cat is the second largest wild cat species and distributed throughout the country.
Jayasekara mentioned that although fishing cats are considered nocturnal, they are quite active during the day as well. During the day time they rest among the dense vegetation, before heading to water for fishing during the night. “They prey on frogs, snakes, rats and also nocturnal birds like the night herons. Fishing cats breed throughout the year, but most records are in January, February, August and September. They produce one to four offspring and males and females mark their territories by cheek rubbing, head rubbing, neck rubbing chin rubbing and spraying urine,” Jayasekara explained.
Fast growing threats
According to Jayasekara one of the fast growing threats for fishing cats is roadkills as some roads are closer to paddy fields, wetlands and lakes. “Roadkills occur mostly in remote areas and close to some city areas as well. They are a threatened species due to habitat destruction as many of the wetland areas in the country are being degraded due to human activities. The killing of fishing cats takes place primarily because some people assume that they are harmful animals and are often mistaken for leopard cubs. Killing of fishing cats takes place mainly in the tea plantation areas due to the lack of knowledge on the species. It has also been recorded that they kill domestic animals especially fowls. Due to this reason people lay traps and electric fences resulting in their death. During the dry season in the dry zone they fall into agricultural wells when they go in search of food and water. Fishing cats don’t have predators except the human,” Jayasekara explained.
As part of its Wild Cats Conservation Project, Jetwing Vil Uyana has conducted several awareness programs for the general public as well as school children in the areas where Fishing cats are commonly found. In collaboration with the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) and the Sri Lanka Police, sign boards were put up in areas where fishing cat accidents have been recorded, warning drivers to be vigilant of wild cats especially when driving at night.
“My objective of this book, with my personal observations during the last six years in the wild and the photographs and camera trap footages, is to create awareness about the fishing cats among locals, school children and the tourists. These photographs I have taken will enable to learn more about this elusive feline. All information I have mentioned in this book are based on my observations and the camera trap footages during last three years. This booklet will give a lot of people the opportunity to obtain more information and knowledge of this globally vulnerable and nationally endangered species and thereby enhance their conservation which is my primary objective. Fishing cat is one of the lesser known species in the country and they face many threats due to the lack of knowledge,” Jayasekara explained.
He said in the tourism point of view, though we have four wild cat species in Sri Lanka, we pay attention only to Leopards. “But if we can use these lesser known species in a responsible way, it will be another wildlife tourism activity in Sri Lanka. We have already started this tour in Sigiriya to spot the small cats in the wild,” Jayasekara said.
“Chaminda has once again put his hard work and dedication towards conservation to words with this educational guide of the resident fishing cats at Jetwing Vil Uyana and we couldn’t be more proud of him,” Chairman of Jetwing Symphony and the Lighthouse Hotel Hiran Cooray said.
“Jetwing has always been committed to having a harmonious relationship with the environment and ensured that our team and the community understand the importance of the land that surrounds us,” Chairman of Jetwing Hotels Shiromal Cooray said.
This booklet was published and fully funded by Jetwing Hotels with the support and advice from Shiromal and Hiran.
(Pix courtesy Chaminda Jayasekara)