Changing Planet

Fishing Cats Quietly Slink Out of Existence in Southeast Asia

Fishing cat (photo by Neville Buck)

After extensive camera trap surveys in key habitat failed to reveal a single fishing cat in Java, conservationists fear that the unique water-loving feline may be on the verge of extinction in Indonesia, if not already extirpated there.

“If the fishing cat is gone from Indonesia, it is following the extinction of the Bali Tiger in the late 1930s and the Java Tiger in the mid-1970s,” says Frederic Launay from Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, which helped fund the most recent camera trap surveys that wrapped up at the end of October 2016 and targeted habitat that scientists had not surveyed previously. “This is sad news, but we hope that we are proved wrong and the fishing cat is re-discovered on Java. Nevertheless, fishing cats still exist across a wide range and our focus should be on assessing population health and reducing threats elsewhere.”

The likely last sighting of a wild fishing cat in Java was before 1990. Over the past 15 years, researchers have placed hundreds of camera traps in prime fishing cat habitat in Java, the only place fishing cats occur in Indonesia: Ujung Kulon National Park, Baluran National Park, Alas Purwo National Park, Meru Betiri, Gunung Gede Pangrango and other protected areas in the interior of Java. The camera traps have captured the leopard cat and even the rare Javan leopard, but not the fishing cat, which is usually easy to spot.

Fishing cats in captivity. (Photo by Jim Sanderson)
Fishing cats in captivity. (Photo by Jim Sanderson)

Fishing cats have historically been found across 11 countries in Southeast and South Asia. Today they are hanging by a thread not only in Indonesia, but also in Vietnam and Cambodia. While Thailand harbors small, remnant populations of the species, there are probably not enough individuals to form healthy, self-sustaining populations. Myanmar has yet to be adequately surveyed, but any populations are likely restricted to southern Myanmar. Fishing cats are not known to occur in peninsular Malaysia, Sumatra or Borneo. Fishing cats face a deadly jigsaw puzzle of human-caused threats across Southeast Asia, ranging from poaching to habitat destruction, retaliatory killing for snatching chickens, to vehicle collisions, to drowning in fishing nets.

According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, fishing cats are declining within all range countries. This species has suffered a global population decline of 30 percent or more in the past 15 years. The IUCN Red List classifies the species as Vulnerable.

“We’re seeing a southern and southeast Asian cat become strictly a South Asian cat because of habitat loss, poaching and retaliatory killing,” says Jim Sanderson, manager of Global Wildlife Conservation’s Small Wild Cat Conservation Program. “The replacement of coastal mangroves with industrial fish and shrimp farms has caused a massive loss of prey and habitat. To feed itself and their kittens, fishing cats have no choice but to turn to poultry and farmed fish, bringing them into conflict with people—retaliation is both swift and deadly.”

Fishing cats (photo by Jim Sanderson)
Fishing cats (photo by Jim Sanderson)

Preventing the extinction of this species across such a large part of its range will require the implementation of tailored conservation efforts and government programs to address the specific and unique threats in each country. Conservationists working with GWC and funded by the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund in Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan and India currently implement active threat-reduction projects to help conserve their populations of fishing cats.

“Fishing cats are easily the most colorful and charismatic of Sri Lanka’s small cat species, but this is not what drew me to them,” said Anya Ratnayaka, Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund grant recipient and co-founder of Small Cat Research and Advocacy, an NGO based in Sri Lanka. Ratnayaka is currently studying fishing cats in urban environments and helping to conserve them. “What really drew my interest was the fact that there were reports of them showing up all around Sri Lanka’s capital of Colombo, something that I have since confirmed with camera traps and GPS collared individuals. Even as Colombo’s wetlands shrink each year, I would like to make sure these animals are protected and preserved for future generations to see.”

In an attempt to assess the status of fishing cat populations across its range, the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, with help from the Small Cat Conservation Foundation and GWC, has supported 19 fishing cat projects with $155,000 over the past three years. Sanderson plans to travel to Myanmar this year to assess the species’ population there with the help of local conservationists. Through local partners, GWC also aims to conduct a fishing cat survey in Vietnam in the last place they were recorded. These kinds of surveys can help conservationists find remaining populations to confirm their survival and spark conservation action that aids in their recovery.

Fishing cats live near wetlands where they catch fish and crustaceans, often completely dunking their heads underwater. Although fishing cats are particularly charismatic felines, distinct from many cat species in their love for water, their plight has attracted less attention than the larger feline species that share their range, such as tigers and leopards.

“My hope is that by calling attention to the rarity of fishing cats on Java and in other Southeast Asian countries, heroic efforts can be made to locate them as soon as possible so that conservationists can launch efforts to save them in places they still exist. We must not let them slip away without trying,” Sanderson says.

Global Wildlife Conservation conserves the diversity of life on Earth by safeguarding wildlands, protecting wildlife and supporting guardians. We maximize our impact through scientific research, biodiversity exploration, habitat conservation, protected area management, wildlife crime prevention, endangered species recovery, and conservation leadership cultivation. Learn more at
  • Christine Utzinger

    This are so beautiful animals,please save them!

  • fred domer

    The price of just one F35 would save all the wild cats in the world.

  • maka veli

    fred domer has a profound comment

    1 f35

  • Dulan Ranga vidanapathirana

    Such a lovely cat. Need to preserve their habits.

  • Ellen Okuda

    It’s ridiculous that these beautiful creatures are killed for eating farm animals when the only reason they do it is because their habitats have been destroyed. They can’t win no matter what they do. Such hypocrisy and ignorance from uncaring humans.

  • Javier Fuenzalida

    Congratulations for yours posts, are very goods

  • Cindy

    Stop with the moronic “retaliatory killing” narrative. Do you kill rats or bugs because you are angry at them or is it really just to prevent disease and property damage? Same logic applies to farmers and ranchers. They are not retaliating for past predation. They are merely protecting defenseless livestock and preventing the next one. That is the ancient contract between man and beast. Please stop the insulting and demonizing narrative that the people who feed you hate wildlife. The only hate going around is your own.

  • Jim

    To Cindy (above), I think you’re splitting hairs re: the word retaliation. It’s used in the article to mean a response to the killing of domesticated animals, rather than imply hatred or empty tit for tat. Livestock often replace wild populations of both predators and their prey, forcing predators to rely more on the closely gathered and more easily caught farm animals. The blame for this lies squarely with ranchers and farmers; they brought their animals into the wild predators’ domains. In the US ranchers and farmers can call on a secretive wing of the Agriculture Dept called “Wildlife Services” to trap, gun down, or otherwise eliminate wild animals, to the tune of millions per year. In some cases, collared wolves are tracked and their entire pack wiped out; the collared animal is left alive to join another pack, drawing the bead to them if they cross ranching or farming interests. Throughout the world, domesticated animals have led to the decimation of wild populations. This is not ‘hatred,’ to use your word; it is fact.

  • Debra Olivier

    The world cannot allow another species to be put under such pressure that it is on a fast slide to extinction. Please help this cat. All animals have their place on earth.

  • From Jim Sanderson, Global Wildlife Conservation’s manager of Small Wild Cat Conservation: Thank you for taking the time to respond to our article on fishing cats. The term “retaliatory killing” is widely accepted to mean that an individual, here a fishing cat, is killed after it preys on backyard poultry or fish. Killing a cat is a response or retaliation. If the cats did not prey on human food then there would be no retaliation. Otherwise people generally ignore the cats. The reason is that fishing cats are known to prey on palm civets that inhabit and make a mess of house attics and so are beneficial to people. Thus, people are not actively killing cats to prevent predation. This is the same way Wildlife Services works for ranchers in the United States. If a rancher suspects that a wolf has killed a calf for instance, a call to Wildlife Services will have the offending wolf dispatched. This is an example of retaliatory killing. Wildlife Services does not respond to a belief of a possible future event by an unknown wolf. Wild cats are obligate carnivores so some individuals will occasionally come into conflict with humans. As you suggested, most humans are surprisingly understanding and tolerant, weighing the benefits the cats provide against occasional loses. We know this is the case since fishing cats can and do live in close proximity to humans.

  • Patricia Nelson

    What a beautiful cat. So sad that they maybe gone for ever.

  • Christy Chang

    I was born Java island, I love cats and nature, but I never saw this cat before though I have climbed many mountains and entered many forests in Java before…
    As a local people, how can I help this fishing cats from extinction? Is there any other link for me to share to let people know about this cat better? If people find this cat in nature… what should they do? Just let the cat walks away or… what? It will be so sad if people cannot see them anymore in the future 🙁

  • Dr M. A. Aziz

    Most of the small wild cat species live in and around with human habitations across the southern and southeastern Asian countries, and are being killed by the very community people, unknowingly the significance of these poor (!) animals to our own nature. The contribution of these small cats to the damage of local poultry or fishery also remained poorly known to them. Nonetheless, conservation efforts have also been focused to few big cat species for decades, thereby these small cats were left behind in jeopardy. Community-based approaches can play a major role to recovering or conserving the remaining small wild cats across their range.

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