The elusive feline known as the fishing cat has not made an appearance in Cambodia – at least not in any official records – for a pretty long time. More than ten years, in fact. But now, a new camera trap study has brought evidence that these endangered cats still survive in some parts of the country.

Researchers from Cambodia’s Centre for Biodiversity Conservation (CBC), along with Fauna & Flora International (FFI) and the Royal University of Phnom Penh, set up 32 remote cameras at five promising locations across the country in the hope of capturing some sign of the animals. What they got were images and video footage of three individual fishing cats at two different coastal sites. Both locations fall within national parks, meaning that the feline residents there are enjoying at least some protection from habitat loss and poaching.

“This is a remarkable discovery as fishing cats are very vulnerable to human persecution,” says FFI's project leader Ret Thaung in a press release. “We are especially pleased to see both a male and female cat ... When working with endangered species, every animal is important and the excitement of such a discovery is overwhelming.”

About twice the size of your pet cat, these stocky spotted-and-streaked felines are most at home near bodies of water like wetlands and mangrove swamps, where they swim and dive for fish. But their residential preference also makes them very vulnerable to habitat loss. “Asian wetland habitats are rapidly disappearing or being modified by human activity, so fishing cat numbers have declined dramatically over the last decade and the remaining population is thought to be small,” explains Thaung.

Now that researchers know fishing cats are still clinging to survival here, they plan work on a conservation strategy to better protect the two sites where the animals were recorded.“It is clear that urgent steps are needed to protect these cats from snaring and trapping and to conserve their wetland habitats," Thaung adds.

However, the team was dismayed that not a single cat was recorded by cameras set up in Botum Sakor National Park, the country's biggest national park. “We are particularly concerned about this, as this area is being devastated by forest clearance and land degradation.”

Elsewhere in Asia, small and scattered populations of fishing cats (Prionailurus viverrinus) still exist in several countries, but the rampant destruction of their habitat is pushing the animals to extinction. It's estimated that over half of the contient's wetlands are under threat and disappearing. 

“It’s not just fishing cats that need protection, as mangrove and freshwater wetland habitats provide an irreplaceable home for many other species including otters, birds, Siamese crocodiles and fish,” says Thaung.

The camera trap survey brought cameos from several other rare and threatened species, including the critically endangered Sunda pangolin, the endangered hog deer and the smooth-coated otter.

Smooth -coasted Otter _2015_09_11
Besides the fishing cat, the cameras recorded species like the smooth-coated otter. Image: FFI/RUPP.

Top header image: Cliff, Flickr