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Fishing cats have webbed feet for swimming and fishing. (Photo: Anjani Kumar)
Fishing cats have webbed feet for swimming and fishing. (Photo: Anjani Kumar)

Searching for the fishing cat’s gleaming eyes in the velvet night

How evidence of the presence of the fishing cat in mangroves of the Godavari delta is fuelling conservation efforts

She walks in beauty, like the night

Of cloudless climes and starry skies; Lord Byron’s words reverberated in my mind on loop as the earth lay dark and silent under a starry sky. The only sound was the splash of oars cutting through the water as we explored the world hidden among the mangroves lining the banks of the Godavari, in Andhra Pradesh, in a long, narrow rowboat one February night last year.

We were looking for signs of the fishing cat—a nocturnal creature, twice the size of the domestic cat, with webbed feet for swimming and fishing. They bark like dogs and can be found in the wetlands of West Bengal and the eastern coastal mangroves of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh. But with these habitats dwindling, their numbers too are falling. They were categorized asvulnerable in the IUCN Red List in 2016.

Unlike tigers and snow leopards, small cats attract little attention. The fishing cat is so obscure that there is no local name for it in Telugu, locals had told me earlier. It gets more importance in West Bengal, where it is called the baaghrol and was proclaimed the state animal a few years ago. Even so, there hasn’t been much research into this cat’s significance in the ecosystem, or its numbers globally.

The Fishing Cat Conservancy (FCC), a non-profit founded by Ashwin Naidu, a conservation scientist at the US’ University of Arizona, aims to save, protect and study these unusual cats. In India, the organization’s activities are led by 25-year-old Pranav Tamarapalli, who will start researching the cat’s behaviour and its role in maintaining environmental balance this year for a doctorate.

Sitting on the gently bobbing boat, I felt a strange disquiet, my mind startledby the slightest sound. We were at a section of the Godavari where the river splits, creating canals and lagoons. The water was dark as tar and the velvety shadows of the mangroves shimmered with fireflies. For 2 hours, the four young conservationists with me sat motionless, only the occasional whisper giving them away. But there was no sign of the elusive fishing cat.

And all that’s best of dark and bright

Meet in her aspect and her eyes;

A day earlier, I had arrived in Amalapuram, a small town that’s a 90-minute drive from Rajahmundry and Kakinada, the nearest major cities in Andhra Pradesh. Located on the Godavari delta, Amalapuram is the farthest point for accessing the frills of civilization, like Wi-Fi and shops selling potato chips and batteries. From there, another hour-long drive on bumpy roads took me to the coast, a long strip of land jutting into the water, with the sea on one side and lagoons on the other. In a makeshift shanty, the FCC had set up the equipment necessary for observing fishing cats. We cooked, ate and slept on the shore to the music of the sea. In the morning, the tracks on the ground told us the area’s regular residents—otters, foxes and more—had paid us peaceful visits.

In the evening, after dinner, we piled into the boat. An occasional, miserly flash from Naidu’s torch was the only light piercing the darkness. He brushed it softly over the mangroves to see if he could catch a pair of gleaming eyes. Naidu believes there are fishing cats in this area. “Over the past couple of years, we have been combing through the mangroves to spot one—we have found pug marks, scat samples but not the real avatar," he says.

The team has also visited coastal villages to raise awareness among locals and convince them not to kill these cats.

This nighttime boat ride was a rare event, a final shot at spotting a cat to confirm its presence in the area and begin conservation activities. “If we can photograph the cats, we can study their features, and statistically conclude the number of cats in this area and in these coastal districts," Naidu adds.

However, we had been out for 3 hours without any luck. My back hurt. I stretched and yawned, setting off the others. Someone giggled, others sighed. There were some whispers about returning to catch some sleep before dawn. Naidu hushed us. Something had gleamed in the flash of torchlight. We readied the camera. Another flash, and we spotted two sets of shining eyes. A cat emerged from the woods, coming to the edge of the water for a drink. No one spoke. Not even a hundred fireworks could have given us this electrifying thrill.

We spotted three cats that night. They were unafraid of us or the light, posing for pictures, even hunting as we watched. The next day, despite a sleepless night, the FCC’s members were not short on energy. They went on a routine trek through the mangroves enthusiastically, picking spots to set up camera traps and discussing the logistics of a scat survey for an accurate population count.

I returned home with the memory of that extraordinary thrill, impressed by the passion of FCC members. The fishing cats are there, they live in our coastal backyards. We must let them stay.

Swati Sanyal Tarafdar is a freelance social and climate justice reporter and occasionally writes travel and food stories.

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