Small Cats Matter
By Risidra Mendis
It is not very often that you come across an area in the country that has water all year round. While wetlands in many parts of the country are filled up and used for development purposes, the number of animals and birds that are destroyed in the process is of no concern to the developers.
Even though wetlands play a major role as flood retention areas and protect the environment as well, it is these very areas that are chosen for building purposes. While smaller lakes, canals and reservoirs in the country run dry during the severe drought season, miles away from Colombo is a wetland that has a continuous supply of water throughout the year.
Amazing as it may seem this wetland has for many long years provided shelter to a large number of animals and birds that have now made this area their permanent abode. This is Sri Lanka’s first manmade wetland resort with water-based and forested habitats on land previously used for slash and burn agriculture, an endeavour that has resulted in increasing the area’s biodiversity, providing habitats to many of the country’s fast dwindling animal populations.
The Jetwing Vil Uyana hotel is a private nature reserve created on neglected agricultural land, comprising a wetland ecosystem with lakes, reed beds, working paddy fields, and reforested areas. This hotel differs from others in that it provides accommodation for its guests and for rare and threatened species that are reliant on water.
1,000 trees planted
Situated in Sigiriya this was once a bare land but is now an area of fullgrown trees and greenery. The hotel commenced operations in 2006 after a bare land was turned into an environment-friendly area for a variety of animals and birds. This was a hotel that protected habitat for animals over financial profits. When building hotels, trees and forest cover are destroyed on a large scale while causing great damage to the animals living in those areas.
However, strange as it may seem, more than a 1,000 trees were planted when building this hotel. When plans were made to expand the hotel in 2010 – 2012, the Grey Slender Loris was first observed at Jetwing Vil Uyana in October 2010 by Assistant Manager Chaminda Jayasekara. After three to four lorises were initially spotted at the site earmarked for expansion, Jetwing Group Chairman Hiran Cooray a lover of nature himself, immediately abandoned the project.
Vil Uyana pays special attention towards the conservation of animals that are most often not recognised as important by the public, which is why many animals of all sizes have chosen to make Jetwing Vil Uyana their home. What started off as a conservation site for wild animals, has today become a mini forest with many species reported over the years. So, it is not surprising then that the Wild Cats Conservation Project by Jetwing Vil Uyana is nothing new to the hotel staff, who have over the years, got used to seeing and living with a wide variety of animals and birds within the hotel premises.
Wild Cats Conservation Project Ceylon Today now takes a look at what this Wild Cats Conservation Project is all about and the man whose, conservation efforts, commitment, hard work, and dedication have saved many animals protected by the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO) over the years. Since 2013, Jayasekara has been laying camera traps to monitor the movements of the lesser-known wild cats, namely the Fishing Cat, the Jungle Cat, and the Rusty Spotted Cat.
Most of us have heard about the Fishing Cat or are at least familiar with the name. But when it comes to the Jungle Cat and the Rusty Spotted Cat it is a different story. Not many of us have heard about these two wild cat species let alone seen one. But at Vil Uyana the Jungle Cat and the Rusty Spotted Cat are quite popular among the hotel staff and visitors as there are regular sightings of these animals. “Apart from the magnificent leopard, Sri Lanka is also home to three of its smaller, but equallythreatened cousins.
The Fishing Cat, the Jungle Cat, and the Rusty Spotted Cat are all found in the wetlands and jungles around the island. Their secretive, elusive nature, small size, and often nocturnal habits have led to these small cats flying under the radar. Even basic studies are scant, not only in Sri Lanka but in all regions of the South and Southeast Asia where these cats are distributed,” says Jayasekara.
Lesser-known wild cats
The conservation status of the Fishing Cat (Prionailurus viverrinus) according to Jayasekara is ‘Locally Endangered.’ “Of the three cats, the Fishing Cat is the largest and is occasionally misidentified as a juvenile leopard. Unlike the domestic cat, the Fishing Cat is quite comfortable in the water. It makes its home in and around wetlands, close to bodies of water where it finds plenty of fish to catch. Wetland areas are the best habitat for the Fishing Cat.
The rapid clearing of such wetlands for human settlement, however, poses a great threat to these felines who are listed as endangered in the IUCN Red List. The disappearance of their natural habitat is forcing more and more of these creatures into cities and exposing them to the threat of persecution and vehicle accidents.
Their natural habitat is also in urgent need of conserving,” Jayasekara explains. Airing his views on the Rusty Spotted Cat (Prionailurus rubiginosus), Jayasekara says this cat is the smallest wild cat in the world and the rarest wild cat in Sri Lanka. “This species is similar to the size of an ordinary domestic cat. The conservation status of the Rusty Spotted Cat is ‘Locally Endangered.’ Its preferred habitats include forest and scrubland. However, it is an elusive animal that is rarely seen.
The Rusty Spotted Cat is a nocturnal hunter, and very territorial – not much else is known about their behaviour in the wild,” Jayasekara says. The Jungle Cat (Felis chaus) is smaller than the fishing cat and its conservation status is ‘Locally Near Threatened,’ says Jayasekara who has spent long hours of his time, studying the behaviour and movement patterns of these elusive animals.
“The Jungle Cat is usually found amongst long grass and scrubland of the dry zone and rarely in the open jungle. It is known to feed on any creature it can overpower. While they may catch fish on occasion, they generally prefer a terrestrial life. They are usually active in the daytime,” Jayasekara explains.
Camera trapping and behavioural studies
Explaining the start when it all began Jayasekara says all three species of small cats have been recorded within Jetwing Vil Uyana, thriving in the vast tracts of undisturbed vegetation that comprise most of its 28 acre land. “Since their discovery, the area was designated as a conservation site and camera traps have been installed to monitor the population, their movements, and their habitat, as well as to observe their behaviour to ensure their survival and conservation, and consider them in the hotel’s operations and expansions,” Jayasekara said.
The Wild Cats Conservation Project first commenced in 2013 with the laying of some camera traps by Jayasekara within the hotel premises where these wild cats were spotted. “While studies via visual observations, pugmarks and scat were carried out previously, further studies using camera-trap images began in April 2017, with the use of 10 cameras placed in selected locations around the property.
To date, seven cats have been identified individually, through identification based on facial markings, spot patterns used along with their sizes, and their frequent locations as captured in camera trap footage, as well as photographs and physical observations,” Jayasekara reveals. He says over 10 cats are estimated to habituate within and around the hotel premises. “Broadening the range of observation, more camera traps are planned to be installed in other locations as well where possible wildcat activity has been noted. With cameras we can easily observe their behaviour without disturbing them,” Jayasekara says.
He goes on to say that as vehicle accidents are a primary cause of the declining numbers of small cats – especially Fishing Cats – signs were placed in areas considered as high risk and where a high number of road kills were reported to warn drivers to be vigilant and avoid knocking them down. “This programme was done in collaboration with the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) and the local Police. A special programme for drivers was also scheduled to create further awareness.
In order to educate the villagers about these small cats and their value to the environment, awareness programmes were also conducted to drive home the importance of protecting these elusive and rare creatures,” Jayasekara mentions. Apart from studying and protecting these wild cats the hotel has gone one step further in their endeavour to protect these species further.
Guests at the hotel are given the opportunity of having an on-site discovery of these wild cats and the chance to see them in their natural habitat without disturbing their movements. In order for guests to get a better understanding of the elusive cat species and observe them in their natural habitat nocturnal wild cat tours are carried out within the hotel premises.