The Sunderbans Tiger Reserve is home to 385 fishing cats, a first-of-its-kind study has revealed.
The Fishing Cat Status Report 2022 was released by the forest department on Sunday.
Of the four parts of the STR, the Basirhat range has around 130 fishing cats, the study says. The Sajnekhali Wildlife Sanctuary Range has 97, National Park East 60 and National Park West 98.
The number was derived from an analysis of images of fishing cats captured by trap cameras set up as part of the national tiger census this year.
The trap cameras were installed in December 2021 and retrieved in January 2022.
Fishing cats thrive in the mangrove delta because of ample supply of fish, the main prey of the animals, and minimum human intervention, said foresters.
“The population estimation of Fishing Cats in Sundarban Tiger Reserve has yielded valuable data on the current population and the distribution patterns of the species. It provides valuable insights to the management to undertake location specific interventions to sustain and increase the population in the reserve,” the report says.
The study only focused on fishing cats inside the STR. The actual number in the entire mangrove delta should be much more. The Sunderbans is spread across 10,000sq km, a little above 4,000sq km of which is in India. The rest is in Bangladesh.
The Indian Sunderbans is split between the tiger reserve and the South 24-Parganas division.
“Apart from tigers, the cameras captured the images of many other species. We decided to focus on the fishing cat because it is our state animal and faces many challenges in the mainland. This is the first such study of fishing cats in West Bengal,” said Tapas Das, field director of the Sunderbans Tiger Reserve.
Fishing cat, baghrol in Bengali and Bengal’s state animal, is included in Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. It is supposed to receive the highest conservation measures, like tigers and elephants, said animal activists.
The nocturnal animal thrives in wetlands. Though it is said to be the top predator in its habitat, fish is its favourite prey. Shrinking wetlands has dwindled their numbers and forced them to stray into human settlements and prey on fish and livestock.
A spike in the death of fishing cats over the past two years has had conservationists worried. From dying in road accidents to being clobbered to death or poisoned, the deaths can be attributed to human-wildlife conflict.
“The study and the numbers are significant. The Ganga-Brahmaputra basin is the most suitable habitat for the fishing cat. The Sunderbans delta is a part of that. But while unregulated construction activities lead to shrinking wetlands almost everywhere, the Sunderbans is likely to remain safe because it is a protected area,” said Tiasa Adhya, member of The Fishing Cat Conservation Alliance, a global organisation for research on and conservation of the animal. “A thriving source population is significant because animals can trickle down to other places.”
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has given “vulnerable” status to the fishing cat. “A reassessment is likely soon. The Sunderbans study is going to be crucial for the reassessment,” said Adhya, who is also one of the international assessors for the IUCN Cat Specialist Group.
Foresters said a census on the fishing cat had earlier been held at Chilika Lake in Odisha, Asia’s largest brackish water lagoon.
The report, released in January this year, had suggested 176 fishing cats in the lagoon.