A New Wild Cat is Coming to Tucson
That’s not a typo, that space between Wild and Cat. Although he may resemble Wilbur, our University of Arizona bobcat—they both have that lovely curlicue on their foreheads—this new wild cat is a Fishing Cat. And he’s got the paws to prove it!
Fishing Cats are one of about 33 small wild cat species living throughout the continents of Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas. Unlike his southwest desert cousin who chases land-based prey like rabbits and mice, the Fishing Cat stalks the riverbanks of mangrove swamps in Asia, looking for its favorite food—fish! About twice the size of a domestic cat and equipped with webbed front paws and dense, compact fur to keep it warm in cold water, this wild cat is perfectly designed for diving head-first into the water and catching fish, both for food and fun.
Because Fishing Cats are small, and some would say less charismatic than their larger cousins—visualize this little kitty beside a lion, tiger, cheetah, or leopard—they have long been out-competed for conservation dollars. Long-term studies are scarce and sightings of these cats have been so rare that some researchers believe they have become extinct in parts of their geographical range. Only in the past twenty years have scientists caught glimpses of these elusive creatures through accidental sightings or serendipitous camera trap shots.
In the wetlands and mangrove forests of South and Southeast Asia, the array of plants and animals that share this ecosystem is staggering! Fishing Cats are just one part of a complex food chain that includes shorebirds, sea birds, otters, turtles, shellfish, and even crab-eating macaques. The amazing mangrove forests in which they live and keep tidy serve as a buffer, or bridge, between life that thrives in freshwater and life that thrives in the sea. And depend on it: In such a complex system, the survival of each species is intricately dependent on the others.
One thing is for certain: We are only beginning to discover the critical part this cat plays in maintaining the health of the mangrove forests. How important are these forests? In the words of University of Arizona Research Scientist and former Rachel Carson Scholar, Dr. Ashwin Naidu, within these gnarly, amazing root systems, the mangroves can store up to five to ten times more carbon dioxide than tropical rainforests.
So situated in one of the most important ecosystems on our planet, each stocky little Fishing Cat lives a solitary life, only coming together briefly once a year for breeding. Because they live such secretive lives, we don’t fully understand them or their capacity for adaptation. Their numbers are decreasing at an alarming rate, in large part due to habitat loss. The lucrative financial forces of commercial fishing—our voracious appetite for farmed shrimp and farmed crabs—have diminished their range and ability to breed.
But their plight has not gone unnoticed. More scientists are now taking a good, hard look at the key role these cats play in maintaining the health of their ecosystem. Some field researchers have had success with conservation projects that prioritize the needs of both the animals and the communities that surround them, but, as populations in the wild decrease faster than this species can procreate, zoos will also play a vital role in preventing their outright extinction.
The Association for Zoos and Aquariums has created a Species Survival Plan, or SSP, which will help keep the Fishing Cats’ gene pool safe and healthy. As zoos learn more about the cat’s biology and its needs, that knowledge will be shared with research scientists working in the field. Their gene pool will be protected for as long as it takes to ensure they can thrive, once again, in a safe and protected wild environment, free from the threat of extinction.
As a lifelong cat lover, I am thrilled that the Fishing Cat will be coming to Tucson as part of the Reid Park Zoo’s Pathway to Asia expansion, and I hope you’re excited to meet this new ambassador for small cat species everywhere. As sentinels to a part of the planet we don’t fully understand, their story will give us a window into a world that now demands our attention and our protection.
So rally round, all you Wildcat fans, and give a warm welcome to the newest wild cat in town, the Asian Fishing Cat!