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Rare cat population to give creature comfort

Mark Tilly / Khmer Times Share:
A fishing cat at the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center. Wildlife Alliance

Nestled deep in the mangroves of the Peam Krasaop Wildlife Sanctuary in Koh Kong province, a rare population of endangered cats has been in hiding.
Known as the fishing cat, the felid can grow up to 85 centimeters long and, as their name suggests, they hunt on the edges of waterways, using their paws to scoop out fish.
It is their mysterious and elusive nature that drew zoologist Vanessa Herranz Muñoz to founding the Cambodian Fishing Cat Project last year to research and help conserve the cat.
“There’s hardly anything known about fishing cats in the wild in Cambodia, which means it’s pretty exciting,” she said in a recent interview.
The population was discovered at the sanctuary in September 2015 after Ms. Herranz Muñoz, with associates from the Royal University of Phnom Penh and the Center for Biodiversity Conservation had spent five months surveying potential areas around the country.
They used a number of methods to track down the creature, including talking to local fishermen and park rangers as well as deploying five camera traps – cameras that use motion sensors to photograph an animal when it passes by – in areas of the sanctuary containing mangroves and watering holes.
They managed to photograph two of the rare cats, the first time anyone had in the last 12 years in Cambodia.
“It’s a pretty good sign, but we still don’t know how big the population is. That’s the information that we need to gather now,” she said.
Ms. Herranz Muñoz will take her team back to the wilds of Koh Kong this month to document the population as well as to engage with local communities during workshops.
Working alongside Wildlife Alliance’s well-established mobile environmental education unit, the Kouprey Express, the workshops will seek to raise awareness of the cat’s status and promote harmony between the species and local communities.
Ms. Herranz Muñoz said that while support for wildlife conservation is strong in the capital, in rural areas it can be quite a different story.
“Here in Phnom Penh, people learn about a new species, they hear that it’s endangered, they get worried, but out in the field, it’s completely different,” she said.
Local residents report that the cat, ominously known as “kla trey” or literally “tiger fish,” raids fishing nets, which in turn threatens people’s livelihoods.
“People in the area are dependent on fishing, so the next day they may set up a trap and kill the cat and usually eat the meat or sell it locally,” Ms. Herranz Muñoz said.
Only last month, Khmer Times revealed that meat sold at stalls along National Highway 6 included cats, with vendors purportedly claiming some of the felines on sale to be wild fishing cats.
The Wildlife Alliance’s Wildlife Rapid Rescue Team identified all cats being sold as domestic, but noted that the trade’s indiscriminate nature poses a danger to vulnerable wild cat species, with buyers holding high hopes in the wild meat’s supposed medicinal properties.
Thomas Gray, the director of science and global development at Wildlife Alliance, said they will be working closely with the Cambodian Fishing Cat Project, particularly in “promoting the importance of coastal zone conservation in the Cardamom Landscape – something for which the fishing cat is an important flagship,” he said.
“We will be collaborating with the project on surveys to further understand the status and distribution of the fishing cat in the landscape.”
In addition, Ms. Herranz Muñoz hopes to develop livelihood alternatives which mitigate future conflicts with fishing cats in the area.
“Community members can benefit from the surrounding biodiversity, via for example, eco-tourism,” she said.
She said the capacity building extends to educating the sanctuary’s local rangers, with the overall goals of the project expected to take several years to fulfil.
“I would expect within the timeframe maybe three to four years to establish the project and make sure the fishing cats and other species can be conserved and the people who live there are the stewards of this area, defending the biodiversity of this area,” she said.
On the research side, Ms. Herranz Muñoz said the project will use similar methods used in the 2015 survey, including setting camera traps, to document and study the cats.
She said there were several ways to track the creatures including searching for signs of otters, who share the cat’s environmental preferences.
“Otters and fishing cats generally share habitats, so it’s a good place to set up cameras,” she said.  
Ms. Herranz Muñoz said they have had a positive relationship working with local authorities who have been supportive of their conservation efforts.
Using the project as the basis of her Ph.D., Ms. Herranz Muñoz said it was a childhood dream to be able to study and conserve the fishing cat.
“I’ve always wanted to study rare cats, which are still quite unknown and in dire need of conservation attention,” she said.
“The fishing cat is one of the most threatened cats in Southeast Asia, but Cambodia has some of the best habitats for them.”

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