SIHANOUKVILLE (Khmer Times) – The release last week of camera-trap photos showing fishing cats prowling wetlands in Koh Kong and Preah Sihanouk provinces drew cheers from environmentalists as well as a note of caution – ensuring their survival will require plenty of work.
“Urgent steps are needed to protect these cats from snaring and trapping, and to conserve their wetland habitats,” said Ret Thaung, a project leader at Fauna & Flora International (FFI), which helped find the cats. “To do this effectively we needed to get a better idea of where they live.”
Researchers from Cambodia’s Centre for Biodiversity Conservation (CBC), which worked in partnership with FFI and the Royal University of Phnom Penh to locate the cats, were thrilled by the pictures. They allayed fears that the species was extinct here.
The grainy pictures were taken at night when the cats were on the prowl. It was the first time they had been photographed in Cambodia since 2003.
Sighted in two Sites
The species – which is native to South and Southeast Asia – is classified as endangered generally, and critically endangered in Cambodia by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. It has been considered endangered since 2008, when sightings began to decline and researchers struggled to determine population numbers.
“They’re believed to be extinct in Vietnam, while there are no confirmed records in Laos and only scarce information about the species in Thailand and Cambodia,” said Ms. Taung.
Experts say the photos – which showed males and females – are especially welcome because they show the species is surviving in two distinct areas: in Preah Sihanouk and Koh Kong provinces. Their sighting in Ream National Park in Preah Sihanouk and Peam Krosaop Wildlife Sanctuary in Koh Kong is likely due to the fact that both areas are protected.
Fishing cats are threatened by the destruction of their habitat – wetlands – which has caused their population to shrink severely over the last decade. Many of these areas in Cambodia –which include rivers, streams, lakes and mangrove swamps – have been either over-developed or destroyed in recent decades.
“Unfortunately, no cats were found in the freshwater wetlands of the Botum Sakor National Park,” said FFI’s Ms. Thaung. “We are particularly concerned about this, as this area is being devastated by forest clearance and land degradation.”
The CBC and its partners are developing a conservation action plan focused on the two sites where the cats were caught on camera, Ms. Thaung said. “This will primarily involve community education and measures to reduce threats,” she said.
“We also plan to continue our research and improve the ability of local rangers to correctly identify fishing cats and help with research and conservation for the species.”
The main challenge at these two sites will be managing conflicts with people, who have been known to kill fishing cats for their meat or in retaliation for damaging fishing nets. One step has already been accomplished.
Conservationists said last month that efforts to bring Cambodia’s “Royal Turtle” back from the brink of extinction were yielding excellent results in Koh Kong, which remains one of the Kingdom’s most pristine regions. One reason for the success is that turtle poachers have been recruited to guard turtle nests. But without protection by Royal decree – and the luxury of being one of Cambodia’s national symbols – fishing cats face a tougher fight for survival.
Raising awareness among those who live near or in its habitat will be vital to the species’ survival, conservationists say. Interviews with village residents revealed that they did not regard the cat as important.
However, CBC researchers said residents of villages near the cat’s habitat provided valuable clues that helped them locate the cats. This information helped researchers decide where to place 32 camera traps.
The process of engaging local residents in the research was, in itself, a step towards raising awareness about the value of the species, those working to protect the species said.
A camera-trap photo shows a fishing cat hunting at night. Photos released last week were the first showing the elusive species since 2003. Photo: Supplied