The Asian genus of Prionailurus is little known but includes some really unusual species. None more so than the Fishing Cat (Prionailurus viverrinus). Unlike its little cousin, the Rusty Spotted Cat (Prionailurus rubiginosus), it has size on its side – upto 115 cm in length (including a tail as long as 40 cm), and 16 kg in weight. In fact, it is the biggest member of its genus. Unlike most small felids, the Fishing Cat loves getting wet. It has a few adaptations to put up with its watery habitat, such as the ability to swim long distances and dive underwater, partially webbed feet and a double-layered, insulating coat. It has a civet-like appearance (with its long, stocky body, short, powerful legs, short tail and broad head) that inspired its scientific name (viverrinus). However, its specialization (in terms of habits and habitat preferences) has placed it under tremendous pressure. In many parts of Asia, its numbers have plummeted on account of habitat loss and poaching (by overzealous fishermen).
Its olive-gray coat, peppered with black spots and stripes provides excellent camouflage. The species shows a strong preference for wetlands – tidal creeks, mangroves, freshwater swamps, marshes, reed beds (formed by species like Phragmites vallatoria, Typha elephantina and Saccharaum narenga), oxbow lakes, slow flowing rivers and streams. It can be found from the foothills of Nepal to the shores of Bengal, in an arc overlapping South and Southeast Asia. Here, the Fishing Cat hunts for a wide range of prey (and not solely those that are water-bound) – crabs, frogs, snakes, fish, and waterfowl. It is said to swim underwater to get within striking range of waterfowl (which it is said to grab by the legs, from below). It might be a medium-sized cat but is very aggressive by nature, taking on prey the size of bandicoots, pythons, goats and dogs.
Local names for the Fishing Cat:
- Hindi – Khupya Bagh
- Bengali – Mach Bagral
- Telugu – Bavuru Pilli
- Tamil – Koddi Puli
- Sinhalese – Handun Diviya
Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, is taken from the book ‘Illustrations of Indian Zoology’, Volume II. It was part of the great collection of paintings compiled by Major General Thomas Hardwicke, a soldier in the British East India Company. Hardwicke was stationed in India from 1777 to 1823, a long interval of time during which he not only saw action in multiple wars but also indulged in his passion for natural history, collecting numerous specimens, having them painted by Indian artists and finally turned into a publication, the Illustrations of Indian Zoology (brought out between 1830-1835, in collaboration with the British zoologist, John Edward Grey). His was one of the largest collections of Indian natural history to be ever assembled (around 4500 illustrations). Hardwicke also had the honour of several species being named after him.