In the thick mangrove forests of the Godavari Delta, a curious cat is on the prowl. The grey-brown feline has stripes along its face and neck, and spots on its torso and legs — like a cross between a leopard and a housecat. Its underside is covered in thick, white fur, flecked with muck from the clayey wetland floor, and its eyes gleam yellow-green, like jewels. The cat scans the water for prey: a rodent would make a good snack, a small bird would be nice, but the best meal of all would be a chunky fish caught in a puddle at low tide.
This is the fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus), a species of wild feline found in the wetland habitats of South and Southeast Asia. In India, the fishing cat is found in the Yamuna and Gangetic plains, the Krishna and Godavari deltas in South India, in Chilika, Odisha and the Sundarbans. The species has also been reported in the wetlands in the Himalayan foothills, Corbett and Dhudhwa National parks, parts of Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh, and even in Keoladeo National Park, Rajasthan.
The photographs in this story are from three regions: Coringa National Park in Andhra Pradesh, the suburban district of Howrah in West Bengal, and the village-town of Bangaon on the West Bengal-Bangladesh border. Coringa is a lush habitat of coastal mangrove forests in the Godavari delta, Howrah and Bangaon are pond-driven wetland landscapes with as much concrete as greenery. All three are thriving habitats for fishing cats, though their behaviour in each region varies slightly.
Even in South India, “the behaviour of fishing cats in the mangroves of the Godavari Delta is different from in the Krishna Delta,” says Srikanth Mannepuri, of the Fishing Cat Conservancy, who has been studying the species closely since 2015. In areas between mangrove forests with agricultural patches, their behaviour is different too, he says.
If this endangered species is to be protected, efforts need to be customised to their immediate habitat. To do this, we need to understand this rare feline and the ecosystem it inhabits.