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WWF census on vanishing cats

The cats in your para may be multiplying but at least one of the four cat species found in and around Calcutta is vanishing along with the wetlands the animals thrive on.

Wildlife specialists have no clue about the population of the fast-disappearing fishing cats, which have been spotted in the marshy areas on the city outskirts, and in Howrah and Hooghly as well as the Sunderban swamps.

The World Wildlife Fund is funding a project to determine the population of fishing cats, popularly known as baghrol or maachbagha, in Howrah and Hooghly.

Unlike in the protected areas of the Sunderbans, the cats living in close proximity of humans in the two neighbouring districts of Calcutta are dying every day.

“Fishing cats live in wetland areas as they feed mostly on fish. Destruction of their natural habitat is the primary reason for their dwindling count in Howrah and Hooghly,” said Tiasha Adhya, the principal investigator of the project.

Wetlands are shrinking in the two districts because of rapid industrialisation and encroaching human settlements. Pollution, wood-cutting and fishing are also responsible for the decline in their number.

The cats are also rampantly killed because depleting wetlands are forcing them to prey on livestock as well as fish cultivated in ponds.

“Five fishing cats were killed in Howrah in three months,” said Adhya. “There were also reports of people killing the cats for their meat.”

Apart from fish, the cats also prey on birds, insects, small rodents as well as molluscs, reptiles and amphibians.

The nocturnal animals don’t get soaked to the skin even when they enter water as they have a double layer of fur. As they lack full claw sheaths, their claws are partially visible even when retracted.

Listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, fishing cats are “possibly extinct” in Pakistan and their presence in China and Malaysia is uncertain.

Even in India — where the cat is included in Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 and hence, protected from hunting — it is reported as “probably gone” from Bharatpur in Rajasthan and the southern Western Ghats.

Offenders under the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act can be imprisoned for up to three years and/or fined up to Rs 25,000.

The World Wildlife Fund project will also suggest a conservation strategy that will be implemented in association with the local community. The conservation plan will probably include setting up of a fund for procurement of livestock preyed on by fishing cats.

“Conservation is impossible unless the local community is involved in the process,” said Adhya.

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