It was just after five in the evening. One moment the sky was glowing golden, and then in a few minutes, the landscape turned dark. The sky became dull, the creek water looked murky, and everything else was shades of grey. A controlled frenzy filled the air as birds squawked on their way home. Night falls rather quickly on India’s east coast, especially as winter nears.
Even under a bright midday sun the mangroves of Coringa Wildlife Sanctuary (CWS) in Andhra Pradesh are a shadowy impenetrable mystery. But in the failing light of dusk they seemed even more enigmatic and ominous.
Soon everything was quiet except for the gentle sputter of the boat I was in, as it glided along, hugging the banks of one of the many unmapped little creeks that ran off the Korangi River in Andhra Pradesh. The Korangi is a tributary of the Godavari, whose estuary hosts thick mangroves. Within minutes it was pitch dark and the mangrove trees seemed to stretch into the starless sky like sinister shadows. Anything could be lurking just a few feet away, but we were blissfully unaware. The ambience heightened my senses and sent a few tingles down my spine.
My companion and guide Srikanth Mannepuri had a well-honed instinct for tracking animals, developed through researching and photographing creatures of the East Godavari district for several years. He asked the boat driver to slow down, gently swept his powerful torch along the bank, and hit jackpot. Standing nonchalantly, its shiny, lambent eyes turned towards us, was a fishing cat. Greyish brown in colour, it had large black spots all over. At over double the size of a house cat, it looked like a miniature leopard. In pictures the fishing cat looks like a cross between a tiger and leopard, and has a couple of stripes on its back. But the way the creature was positioned in front of us, its stripes were not visible. Its most arresting feature was its greenish-yellow eyes, luminous and piercing.
The fishing cat, (Prionailurus viverrinus) is variously called bavurupilli, neetipilli, and marakapilli in Telugu. It is largely found in wetlands, especially in mangroves, in South and Southeast Asia from Pakistan to Cambodia. The bulk of its population is found in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. In India it lives mainly in the floodplains of the Ganga, Yamuna, and Brahmaputra, as well as the marshy wetlands and mangroves formed by the Godavari and Krishna rivers as they empty into the Bay of the Bengal. There have been some sightings of the animal in the wetlands of the country’s western coast, but they are so few and far between that it is mostly considered to be absent in that part of the country.
The fishing cat has been under severe threat, enough that the IUCN had for many years categorised the species as ‘Endangered.’ It has only recently been labelled ‘Vulnerable,’ which indicates an improvement in its conservation status. However, destruction of mangroves, spread of aquaculture, and the constant conflict humans have with it, has had a serious impact on its numbers and this continues to be a matter of concern for conservationists.
Not much is known about the animal. It is an elusive and secretive creature, and no one knows how many exist, in India or in the world. Last year, Anant Shankar, the Divisional Forest Officer (Wildlife) of Rajahmahendravaram (Rajahmundry), whose jurisdiction includes CWS, undertook the first ever survey of the animal anywhere. The census results estimate that 115 cats lived in the mangroves, in the 330-sq-km area surveyed, of which CWS comprised 235 sq km. There’s now a concerted effort to protect the animal. It has been declared the keystone species of CWS and the sanctuary’s logo is a cartoon version dubbed ‘Macha, The Fishing Cat.’
As its name suggests, fish is the animal’s main prey. Its feet have been observed to be partially webbed, enabling it to swim and fish, and it is even known to dive. But increasingly, researchers in East Godavari who have been studying the animal for the last few years find that it is more of an opportunistic hunter/feeder. Srikanth said he has seen it chase rats, crabs, and other animals. There have also been reports of the cat attacking, chasing, and pouncing on water snakes, rodents, herons, small birds, frogs, insects, molluscs, and shellfish. The belief was that it was a nocturnal animal, but that assumption too has come under serious reconsideration. Rather, there have been many sightings of the fishing cat during low tide, when the water recedes from the creeks, leaving behind rich fish resources in the shallow waters, enabling it to hunt, catch, and feed with relative ease.
Some of its behaviour has intrigued researchers. It is a very patient hunter — waiting up to five or six hours without budging from its place. It is sometimes also known to stand at the edge of the bank and gently rustle the surface of the water in order to attract fish. Opportunistic predators, the cats are known to feed off the carcasses of fish left behind by smooth-coated otters, another resident of CWS.
The destruction of mangroves, poaching, and lack of awareness are real threats to the fishing cat population. They do sometimes wander into villages to feed on fish from aquaculture ponds, an easy food source, and get killed by villagers. However, sustained efforts towards awareness and education have yielded results.
Back at the river we continued to observe the fishing cat we had spotted on the riverbank. Curiously enough, it did not seem at all bothered by our presence, or the light being shone in its direction. It took turns to groom itself and stare at us, while its ears were constantly twitching, on the alert for any sound of fish from the water’s edge. After a few minutes, it began walking along the bank, graceful and majestic, but stealthy at the same time. It wove in and out of clumps of grass and little bushes; we silently followed alongside, losing sight of it for a second or two as it went behind foliage, and reconnecting as it emerged on the other side.
At a dip in the bank, where marshy ground gently sloped into the water, the cat crouched down with its head resting on its two front paws, and waited patiently. It was absolutely still, its eyes fixed on the water’s edge, its body coiled in anticipation, ready to spring. It was interesting to note how it seemed to have lost all interest in us. Srikanth said in that state, it could wait for hours on end till it caught its prey. We could have waited alongside, but stationary humans were like a banquet for the swarms of mosquitoes that descended on the boat. Reluctantly we turned away, but the cat’s eyes seemed to follow us all the way back into town.