Chilika Gets an Ambassador

The largest brackish water lagoon in Asia and India’s oldest Ramsar Site, Chilika now has an ambassador – the fishing cat! The announcement was made by the Chilika Development Authority in a meeting held to conclude the ongoing wildlife week (October 1-8, 2020).

The fishing cat Prionailurus viverrinusas is the only wild cat species in India that is a wetland specialist. The globally endangered felid was found to be present all around Chilika but the marshlands fringing its north and north-eastern sections was where most evidence of its occurrence. This is according to a recently concluded study conducted by the Fishing Cat Project (TFCP) and the Indian wing of Fishing Cat Conservation Alliance (FCCA), a global organisation comprising experts working on the elusive but rare feline in all range countries, in collaboration with the Chilika  Development  Authority (CDA). The study was for monitoring the health and well-being of the Ramsar site. The future plans of this collaborative venture between  CDA and TFCP include regularising protocols to estimate fishing cat populations in Chilika and to create a fishing cat conservation network by involving local stakeholders, college students, researchers, non-government and government organisations.

The fishing cat is a Schedule I species and deserves conservation measures of the highest accord in India like the tiger and elephant. Unfortunately, marshland and mangrove ecosystems, which are its prime habitat are in decline.

Photo: Rishabh Shukla

Chilika has one of the country’s largest extensive marsh-ecosystem spanning  around 100 sq. km. Welcoming CDA’s proposition, Tiasa Adhya, co-founder of The Fishing Cat Project says:

Projecting the fishing cat as the face of marshlands will raise the profile of the species and marshland ecosystems globally and nationally, which are otherwise neglected ecosystems. Locally, it will nurture their value among multiple stakeholders in Chilika.

These marshes receive the maximum freshwater flow from the tributaries of Mahanadi and seasonal rivulets. Analysis of long-term data collected by the Chilika Development Authority (CDA) shows that this area also has high fish abundance.  This is significant given that fish is the lifeline of Chilika, sustaining two lakh fishermen families and globally threatened piscivorous mammals like the fishing cat, smooth-coated otter and Eurasian otter.

Partha Dey, co-founder, TFCP, says:

Management interventions are required to prolong the life of this marshland so that it can continue to provide for the globally endangered fishing cat, the hundreds of precious birdlife that arrive every winter  here  and  to  the  indigenous fishing  community.

The CDA plans to manage the marshes with a socio-ecological approach involving local stakeholders and ecologists. Estimation of fishing cat populations will be done through camera trapping in the near future collaboratively by the CDA, Fishing  Cat  Project (TFCP) and the Indian wing of the Fishing Cat Conservation Alliance (FCCA). The results are expected in the first part of 2021 and will be the first of its kind in estimating the apex predator of the coastal ecosystem.

The CDA also plans to establish a rescue and rehabilitation centre for birds, Irrawaddy dolphins, fishing cat and otters with the help of the Wildlife Trust of India inside the Chilika lagoon. This centre will cater to a long-standing need for rescue and rehabilitation of the migratory birds and other flagship species of the lagoon.