Last month, I was doing my usual field research and rummaging through many camera trap images in the Dudhwa Tiger Reserve in Uttar Pradesh. Suddenly, one picture took me by surprise – an entire fishing cat family! A rather rare occurrence, these elusive felines have never been photo-captured earlier in the region in this fashion. Spotted in the Sathiyana range of the Protected Area, the camera trap image of a fishing cat with two of her sub-adult young ones is a sign of hope for both conservationists and these wild cats!

A fishing cat mother with two of her healthy off-springs

A fishing cat is a small to medium-sized lesser-known and understudied species that belongs to the cat family. These mysterious predators are mostly found hunting the waterways of wetlands and swamps. In India, fishing cat is a symbolic species of mangrove forests in Sunderbans and Andhra Pradesh, floodplains of the River Ganga and Brahmaputra, and coastal wetlands along the Bay of Bengal.

India’s only wetland cat faces many dangers
Throughout its distribution in the Indian subcontinent, this elusive species faces several threats to its survival. Some of these dangers include anthropogenic disturbances caused due to development activities - resulting in the degradation and loss of wetland-grassland ecosystems, and retaliatory killings.

Given these abysmal realities, the recent camera trap image of a fishing cat with two of its young ones from the Dudhwa National Park in Uttar Pradesh is very encouraging. Further, it also reassures that the species is thriving well in the Protected Area, which has 10-15 wetlands - providing the fishing cat family with prey like fishes and smaller mammals in abundance.

Evidence backed conservation measures to restore critical grasslands and wetlands

This photo captured in the Sathiyana range of the Protected Area is part of an ongoing project of WWF-India in collaboration with the Dudhwa Tiger Reserve.

This initiative centers around research-based conservation measures to manage floodplain grasslands and study herbivores associated with these systems. Over the past two decades, WWF India has been working closely with the Uttar Pradesh Forest Department to protect these critical habitats.

Eventually, these collective actions have led to an increase in the population of such elusive species apart from protecting the grassland-wetland systems in the Tiger Reserve.

As part of this project, we have helped the Forest Department in setting up baseline information on state of these tall grassland-wetland mosaics. Locally called phanta and taal, respectively, these eco-regions are essential for other faunal species such as the Fishing Cat, One-horned rhinoceros, Swamp deer, Hog deer, and Hispid hare, among others. In addition to this, we also aim to establish experimental plots within these grasslands to study better management measures for their long-term monitoring and conservation actions.   

The Dudhwa Tiger Reserve comprises of three Protected Areas. These include the Dudhwa National Park, the Kishanpur Wildlife Sanctuary, and the Katerniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary. Together these regions are embedded in a complex matrix of forests, farmlands and linear infrastructures such as barrages and state highways.

These forests of the Himalayan foothills lie in a region called ‘Terai’ – which translates into ‘wet and inundated land’. They form the floodplains of rivers such as Sharda, Girwa and their tributaries.

The tall Sal trees, swamps or marshes, alluvial grasslands and wetlands form the ‘characteristic mosaics’ in this part of Terai Arc Landscape which is also one of our priority regions. Likewise, these forests are home to many other elusive and lesser-known species such as the Bengal florican, Swamp francolin, Hispid hare, Rusty-spotted cat, and the Leopard cat.

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