Published: 03rd November 2020
On the trail of the Fishing Cat: Why there's plenty to learn from Tiasa Adhya's conservation project
Yay! So fishing cats are now in the limelight for all the right reasons. We talk to conservationist Tiasa Adhya who has been working for the creatures fora very long time, about what this news can do
It is such good news that fishing cats have been declared the ambassadors of Chilika Lake. So it's time to talk about these creatures again. And who better to strike a conversation about them than Tiasa Adhya, Co-founder, principal coordinator and scientist for the Fishing Cat Project that was started in 2010. Hailing from Kolkata, this researcher has been working in the Gangetic and Mahanadi floodplains and delta — with special focus on the Chilika Basin. The very sight of fishing cats has helped this youngster through some tough times and she recounts for us those heart-warming times when she came across them. Lest you think it is just an emotional connection for Tiasa, conservation, for her, is an ethical choice. Their new initiatives, like the Know Thy Neigbours project, are making sure that they charge full-steam ahead when it comes to fishing cats.
Not just this, the 2018 WCN Scholarship recipient writes poetry for conservation too! "I do not know whether it really spreads awareness or not, but I hope it will evoke ecological sentiments," she says humbly. In a riveting conversation, she shares the emotional moments she has shared with the creatures, how fishing cat conservation could see an upswing in the light of the latest news and about the always-asked question about the state of environmental education.
Why focus so much on the fishing cat and what is so fascinating about it? Why should it be conserved?
All members of the cat family (Felidae) are newcomers on the planet. Due to certain favorable conditions prevailing at that time, they could diversify rapidly from a single ancestor to become the enigmatic beings they are today. This recent and rapid emergence of cat species has made each similar to the other — in terms of their habits and spirit. If there is one trait that is hard to locate in the cat family, it would be the love for wet muddy terrains. In fact, there are only two felids among all 40 cat species in the world with this affinity. The fishing cat is one among them and hence, is unique in the Felidae family. They thrive in the tropical floodplains and deltas of South and South East Asia, many of which were cradles of civilisation. The natal influence of wetlands on us is true even today. Wetlands are food supermarkets, water reservoirs and purifiers as well as carbon sinks. Yet these are the most plundered ecosystems with more than 87 per cent of wetlands lost since pre-industrial times. This means that species symbolic to wetlands such as the fishing cats are hanging precariously on the edge, indicating what will befall us if we are to let it fall off the cliff — our own extinction. This realisation of how the fishing cat is linked to wetlands, which are, in turn, regulators of climate change and preservers of humanity and therefore, how its fate will mirror ours is what has been a fascinating journey for me. Conservation is an ethical choice — we choose to help a species persist amidst the sixth mass extinction and this creates positive feedback on the mind and consciousness — we have the power inherent in us to inflict positive change. For us (me and my team), that choice was to be with the fishing cat.
What were some of your special moments with the cat which you can never forget? Why were they so memorable?
I have seen them less than a dozen times in the wild but each and every time that I did, I felt like I was being gifted by the cat and the universe. One particular incident was very special. Incidentally, at that time, I was going through the toughest phase in life and many times it felt like I had lost it. But something magical happened when on my way back to the boat through the scratchy Phragmites bed one night, I came face-to-face with a male fishing cat who was just three feet away from me. Those bold, big, round eyes in the fading light of the evening created a deep dent in my mind — as if life was telling me to get up, pick up the bits and pieces and move towards fulfilling my purpose in life. The other time, it was watching a couple of fishing cats — the female slowly retreated into the reeds as an irritated Lapwing kept ranting at her followed by the male coming out into the open after her. And then seeing us, he sat down and kept looking at us till the evening descended and engulfed him. I kissed the ground to mark this occasion and will forever remember that very special half-an-hour.
As the co-founder of The Fishing Cat Project, you have been working with various stakeholders including the forest department, Zilla Parishad and so on. How has the journey been, in retrospect?
It has been an immensely rich experience. For example, in conservation, we refer to local communities as if they are a homogeneous and stable entity, yet, this is the farthest away from the truth. The economic forces that shape our lives have pervaded almost all nooks and corners and are equally affecting local communities. In fact, there is hardly any 'local' now. Individual local residents have different aspirations in life and it is challenging to identify a common message that will appeal to all, to find sync with individual motivations. Life in the field of conservation is about accepting that change is the only constant, to be able to adapt and move on. For example, the bright youth you work with today will not be here tomorrow, so you go on recreating enthusiasm again and again and again. It is about accepting the fact that what works today might not work tomorrow at all. An officer or a policymaker with whom you have been able to strike a chord might suddenly be transferred and lo and behold, you are back to square one and trying to create change again. More than anything, this journey has taught me the value of the 3 Ps - Passion, Patience and Perseverance.
Fishing Cat | (Pic: Terry Whittaker)
Tell us a little more about the Know Thy Neigbours project.
It was a project that we had started in West Bengal. We sought to engage local residents in putting up camera traps, which are photograph-taking devices that are triggered automatically when an animal passes in front. These people were trained on how to operate camera traps and how to place the devices in their backyards, beside ponds. Ponds, because the fishing cats love eating fish and are frequent visitors to ponds with fish in them. Just like we have different fingerprints, fishing cats have different coat patterns. With the photographs taken, we would sit down with locals and explain how individual fishing cats could be told apart from each other by looking for differences in the pattern. The next step was to involve them in a process of naming the cats. In this process, we hoped to create an attachment between local residents and individual fishing cats, to nurture care towards fishing cats as neighbours as against 'problem animals'.
We absolutely are in awe of the fact that you use eco-poetry to spread awareness. Do tell us about this side of yours. And do share two short ones with us or a few lines from your poetry.
I believe that literature can provide wings to our thoughts. I also believe that these thoughts should have roots in the present ecological issues of our era. That is what inspires poetry sometimes.
The Wasteland is a poem on how wetlands are suffering due to neo-liberal policies. These policies term wetlands as 'wastelands' and are economically motivated and backed by policymakers for short term gains. The poem talks of a nemesis that awaits the human world if we do not realise how priceless wetlands are. It ends as it alludes to the peace that a motherly womb offers — wetlands are such wombs, they are life-givers.
From being the state animal of West Bengal to now being the ambassador of Chilika Lake, fishing cats have surely come a long way. But have these titles really made a difference when it comes to their conservation. Now that they are the ambassadors of Chilika Lake, do you see things changing for them?
Yes, I have seen firsthand how raising the profile of a species and increasing its popularity bringing about more change than scientific studies published in journals can sometimes do. Popularity means you have that many eyes and ears looking out for the cat and that many vocal mouths. In Bengal, for example, ever since its designation as a State Animal and conservation efforts to popularise the Fishing Cat, numerous conservation groups have become interested in what is happening to the cat, they become vocal about conservation issues. The fishing cat has also been getting more media coverage than a decade back. All this contributes to creating positive change. Although this is just 10 per cent of the kind of attention it requires. But that is what conservation is all about — being at it, chipping away every day.
Sometimes, it could act as a flagship for vulnerable wetlands existing outside protected areas to safeguard socio-ecological systems. For example, the presence of the fishing cat is helping litigation to prevent companies from usurping one of the largest contiguous marshy tracts outside protected areas in the Lower Gangetic Floodplains. Numerous villages located in its periphery depend on this marshy tract for sustenance.
This is where its designation as Chilika's ambassador is meaningful. The largest lagoon of Asia and the first Ramsar site in the country is under immense pressure. The existence of populations of threatened species such as the Fishing Cat might bring focus on issues plaguing its habitat degradation here. This will hopefully create paths to conduct sound research and suggest ways to manage the delicate ecosystem. In turn, this will help not only fishing cats but also the two lakh fishermen families dependent on the lagoon.
According to the Fishing Cat Project (TFCP) and the Indian wing of Fishing Cat Conservation Alliance (FCCA), fishing cat was found to be present all around the Chilika Lake but the marshlands fringing its north and north-eastern sections were the places where most evidence of its occurrence was found
Tell us more about the Fishing Cat Conservation Alliance — it is the only global NGO dedicated to the conservation of a small cat species, is it not?
Yes, this is quite historical actually. We have organisations dedicated to the more charismatic megafauna of the world but only a few that represent the marginalised species that are unique in their own ways. For some years now fishing cat researchers and conservationists around the world were associated loosely as the Fishing Cat Working Group. This year, in 2020, we registered as the Fishing Cat Conservation Alliance and have 13 active projects across eight countries spanning their distribution range with some countries such as India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka with multiple projects. Out of 40 cat species, 33 are small cats and the fishing cat is the only one now with an organisation batting for it.
There is so much focus on tigers and elephants and other large animals, for good reason, of course, but sometimes, smaller animals like the fishing cat might not get their due. How good or bad is that? How can we decrease the 'bads' and increase the 'goods'?
Sometimes it is good to be out of sight — if the species is unseen, the problems are unperceived too. For megafauna, that is simply not possible sometimes. This is a pro of being small. But, there is hardly any place left that is not being plundered to feed our consumption. The cons of being small are that you continue being on the margins and so do the problems that stifle your existence.
Species like the fishing cat co-occur (not necessarily co-exist) with humans throughout most of their global range simply because tropical floodplains and deltas are also the most densely inhabited regions of the world. It is important for us to understand that conserving intact wetland ecosystems, at least whatever is left of them, is in the best interests of both society and wild species. With shrinking natural resources, we tend to see a rise in negative interactions between wild species and humans — to maintain tolerance and find new ways of inspiring coexistence is becoming challenging.
Where all are Fishing Cats found in India and which areas need more focus?
Fishing cats are found along the Ganga, Yamuna and Brahmaputra floodplains, the bigger Ganges-Brahmaputra Basin, particularly the Sundarbans delta and in the coastal wetlands along the Indian eastern coast with the ones in Andhra Pradesh (Coringa and Krishna mangroves) being perhaps the southernmost points of occurrence.
They need attention throughout, but I think particularly in the bigger Ganges-Brahmaputra Basin, which I am assuming holds a large portion of their population and could be crucial for maintaining connectivity with the southern populations. Simultaneously, the wetland continuum along the eastern coast needs to be maintained. We know very little of the populations in the Brahmaputra floodplains and there needs to be attention to gather baseline data on the species from there. The population in the Terai Arc Landscape is nearest to the westernmost fishing cat population in the world, that is, the Indus delta in Pakistan. What is happening to the connectivity of populations there — we have no idea.
Tiasa Adhya | (Pic: Tiasa Adhya)
What is your opinion about the Environment Education offered in schools and if you had to upgrade it, how would you do so?
Humanity has seen and been enriched by the Age of Physics, Mathematics and Chemistry. This era is the Age of Ecology, as philosopher Murray Bookchin put it. This also happens to be the age of the sixth mass extinction in which we as a species face a choice — to evolve or to die. If we are to evolve, we have to be aware and conscious of ecology, that is, how intricately connected we are to the natural world and how we impact the natural processes that sustain us. Environment education lacks this perspective at present and there is no better time than now to revive interest in the subject. If the next generation grows up to look at the environment not just as a good cause to associate with but rather as the basis of our existence, that will be a game-changer.
Excerpts from The Wasteland
We are free
Nostalgic, earthen pots of streams — algal hemmed.
A wet canvas.
A dripping spread
Of green — dense and matted.
The soul heaves into the Earth.
Excerpts from The Child
Landmass breaks, Ocean drifts and Communion,
when life flowed under the skin and nerves erupted
humid-moss greened walls,
soaked and sunkissed
Youth was born.
He is the authority
If it wasn’t for the pandemic, Chilika Development Authority (CDA) and Tiasa Adhya's Fishing Cat Project would have joined forces to spread awareness about the importance of fishing cat conservation in schools, especially in school surrounding Chilika Lake, informs CDA's Chief Executive Susanta Nanda. "We were going to take the assistance of NCC (National Cadet Corps) and NSS (National Service Scheme) for it. Because it is children who will spread awareness among the villagers," he informs. Part two of the plan was a census of fishing cats with the help of camera traps. The IFS officer reasons, "Just like by conserving tigers, the species below it in the chain are conserved. Similarly, if we conserve fishing cats, fishes and important insects, that are vital to the ecosystem of Chilika, are conserved."
The Chief Executive, whose Twitter feed is d display of his love for animals, is clearly a believer in the power of youngsters as he adds on a concluding note, "More youngsters like Tiasa should come forward and start working for flora and fauna."
Fishing cat | (Pic: Sujan Chatterjee)
For more on them, check out facebook.com/fishingcatindia