Other Names
chat pêcheur, chat viverrin (French)
Fischkatze (German)
gato pescador (Spanish)
mecho biral, mecho bagh (Bangladesh)
mach bagral, bagh dasha (Bengali: India)
bun biral, khupya bagh (Hindi: India)
kucing bakau (Indonesia)
sua hay (Laos)
kyaung ta nga (Myanmar)
mach billi (Pakistan)
  • Description and Behavior

  • Biology

  • Habitat and Distribution

  • Population Status

  • Protection Status

  • Principal Threats

  • References

  • kola diviya, handun diviya (Sinhalese: Sri Lanka)
    koddi pulli (Tamil: Sri Lanka)
    maew pla (Thailand)

    Description and Behavior
    The fishing cat, with its stocky, powerful build and short legs, was given its Latin name on account of its rather viverrine or civet-like appearance (Bennett 1833). Its pelt is olive grey, and is patterned with rows of parallel solid black spots which often form stripes along the spine. Its tail is very short for a felid, less than half the body length (TL = 23-21 cm, 37% of head-body length (n=5): Pocock 1939a). Females are markedly smaller (6-7 kg) than males (11-12 kg) (Sunquist 1991). Despite its fishing habits, the fishing cat does not show marked morphological adaptations to capturing or eating fish. Like the flat-headed cat, its claw sheaths are shortened, so that the claws are not completely enveloped when retracted. Unlike the flat-headed cat, in which the second upper pre-molar is long and sharp (which enables it to grip slippery prey), the fishing cat, as in most cats, has a much smaller and less-developed tooth. Although webbed feet have often been noted as a characteristic of the fishing cat, Kitchener (1991) shows that the webbing beneath the toes is not much more developed than that of a bobcat.

    The fishing cat, however, is still appropriately named, for fish have been found to be its most frequently taken prey in Nepal’s Royal Chitwan National Park (D. Smith in litt. 1993). Fishing cats are good swimmers, and have been observed to dive into water after fish (Breeden 1989), as well as attempt to scoop them out of water with their paws (Leyhausen 1979). Other water-associated prey are probably taken as well, ranging from crustaceans and molluscs to frogs and snakes. Fishing cats also prey on rodents, small Indian civet, young chital fawns and wild pig (P. Sanyal in litt. 1991, D. Smith in litt. 1993), as well as domestic goats, calves, dogs and poultry (Sterndale 1884, Phillips 1935, de Alwis 1973, Bhattacharyya 1988, Sanyal 1992). Birds are the least frequently taken prey item in Chitwan (D. Smith in litt. 1993). Roberts (1977) reports that in Pakistan fishing cats have been seen to catch waterfowl by swimming up to them while fully submerged and seizing their legs from underneath. A fishing cat was seen scavenging a cow carcass in India’s Keoladeo National Park (Haque 1988), and in Chitwan, fishing cats have been observed to scavenge tiger kills, as well as livestock carcasses (D. Smith pers. comm.).

    Phillips (1935) noted that, in Sri Lanka, fishing cats could be met “at any hour of the day.”

    Reproductive Season (W): in coastal wetlands of north-eastern India, peak in mating activity Jan-Feb, with births Mar-May, but mating also observed in June (Bhattacharyya 1992)

    Gestation (C): 63 (Ulmer 1968) - 70 days (Mellen 1989)

    Litter Size (C): 2.61+0.28 (n=13) (Mellen 1989); range 1-4 (Green 1991)

    Age at Independence (W): 10 months (Weigel 1975)

    Longevity (C): average 12 years (K. Corbett in litt. 1993)

    Habitat and Distribution
    Fishing cats are strongly associated with wetlands. They are typically found in swamps and marshy areas, oxbow lakes, reed beds, tidal creeks and mangrove areas. They are more scarce around smaller, fast-moving watercourses (D. Smith pers. comm.). They have been recorded at elevations up to 1,525 m in the Indian Himalayas (Prater 1971), where they frequent dense vegetation near rivers and streams. Although fishing cats are widely distributed through a variety of habitat types (including both evergreen and tropical dry forest (Rabinowitz and Walker 1991), their occurrence tends to be highly localized.

    The fishing cat also has a discontinuous distribution (Figure 11). It has long been thought to be absent south of the Isthmus of Kra, but a new record has emerged from Peninsular Malaysia, where a fishing cat was captured in 1967 and taken to a zoo (van Bree and Khan 1992). It is not clear whether the fishing cat has colonized Peninsular Malaysia from the north in recent years, whether it has always been present but rare, or whether the new record represents an escape from captivity. The new record does suggest, however, that the presence of the species in Singapore, Bali and Borneo -- where three old and possibly erroneous records exist - deserves further investigation (van Bree and Khan 1992). There is no record of the fishing cat from China (Wang and Wang 1986), but it might be found in Guangxi or Yunnan near the border with Vietnam. Swinhoe (1862) reported the presence of the fishing cat on Taiwan, but it does not actually occur there. In India, the fishing cat is found in the valleys of the Ganga and Brahmaputra rivers, and along the upper part of the east coast and possibly still the south-west coast, but not elsewhere in the peninsula. In Pakistan, it is mainly found along the lower reaches of the Indus River, although a few stragglers penetrate the northeast of the country along the Ravi and and Sutlej rivers (Roberts 1977).

    In Java, the fishing cat appears to be restricted to small numbers in isolated coastal wetlands: there were no records during recent surveys further inland than 15 km and it must be considered critically endangered (Melisch et al. 1995). The habitat is threatened by human encroachment or agriculture and aquaculture, and pollution by pesticides.

    Population Status
    Global: Category 2
    Regional: Category 2
    IUCN: Insufficiently Known

    Fishing cats are locally common around wetlands. Major systems which potentially support large numbers of fishing cats include the Sundarbans mangrove forests of Bangladesh and India, the terai region along the foot of the Himalayas in India and Nepal, the floodplain of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra, Cambodia’s Great Lake (Tonle Sap), the coastal floodplains of eastern Sumatra, and the deltas of the Salween, Irrawaddy, Red, Mekong, and Indus rivers (Sanyal 1983, Khan 1986; R. Salter, C. Santiapillai, C. McDougal in litt.). However, all of these areas have been highly affected by human activities. While fishing cats are reportedly common around villages in wetland areas where habitat conversion has not been drastic, such as the outskirts of Calcutta where the dominant land use is aquaculture (Sanyal 1992), they do not appear to be so adaptable to rice paddy and other irrigated forms of cultivation (de Alwis 1973, Dao Van Tien in litt. 1990, K. Mukherjee in litt. 1991). Along India’s thickly-populated south-western coast and in the Indus river basin in Pakistan, fishing cats are probably on the verge of extinction (U. Karanth, T. Roberts, B. Wright in litt. 1991, 1993)

    D. Smith (in litt. 1993) recorded home range size for females in Nepal’s Chitwan National Park of 4-8 km2 (n=3); a single male had a home range of 22 km2. Jungle cats were observed in parts of all four fishing cat home ranges.

    Protection Status: CITES Appendix II

    National Legislation:
    Protected over most of its range

    Hunting Regulated:

    No Legal Protection:
    Bhutan, Malaysia, Vietnam

    No Information:
    Cambodia (Nichols et al. 1991; U. Ohn, R. Salter, in litt. 1993)

    Principal Threats
    Wetland destruction is the primary threat facing the species. A survey of the status of Asian wetlands found that 50% of over 700 sites were faced with moderate to high degrees of threat, including settlement, draining for agriculture, pollution, and excessive hunting, wood-cutting and fishing. Severely threatened sites include the estuaries of the Karnataka coast (south-western India) and the deltas of the Irrawaddy, Indus, Mekong and Red rivers (Scott and Poole 1989). In addition, clearance of coastal mangroves over the past decade has been rapid in Tropical Asia (Dugan 1993).

    © 1996 IUCN - The World Conservation Union