Random header image... Refresh for more!

Category — Cats

A Journey to Nepal to Participate in Fishing Cat Conservation

Guest blogger, Linda Castenada, Cat Ambassador Program:

Last month, fishing cat conservationists from around the world gathered to participate in the first ever Fishing Cat Symposium in southern Nepal.  The symposium was organized by the Fishing Cat Working Group and was sponsored by various conservation organizations, including the Cincinnati Zoo.  I helped raise funds to support the symposium through the Fishing Cat Fund and was fortunate to be able to make the journey to Nepal to deliver funds and present the status of the fishing cat population in North American zoos.  My goal was also to see where the Zoo could play a role in global conservation of the fishing cat.

Fishing cat (Photo: Kathy Newton)

Fishing cat (Photo: Kathy Newton)

I arrived in Nepal a week before the symposium to help out with last minute preparations and also to see the sights. After a few days in the fast-paced and colorful city of Kathmandu, I boarded a bus to Sauraha, located just outside of Chitwan National Park. Many moons ago, the Cincinnati Zoo had a greater one-horned rhino (also called an Indian rhino) named Chitwan and I could not pass up the opportunity to possibly see an Indian rhino, and maybe a tiger or even a fishing cat!

I spent three days going in and out of the park to explore, each time crossing a river via canoe.

I spent three days going in and out of the park to explore, each time crossing a river via canoe.

Chitwan National Park was an amazing adventure.  The rhino population is doing quite well there as they do not face the same poaching issues as do the rhinos in Africa. Despite the heavy vegetation of the jungle, they are commonly seen around the park. During my three days in Chitwan, I was fortunate enough to see three rhinos!

I think this rhino was somewhat surprised to see us when it emerged from the tall grasses.

I think this rhino was somewhat surprised to see us when it emerged from the tall grasses.

After my time in Chitwan National Park, I met up with the conservationists to travel to the symposium location, a resort on the other side of the Narayani River. Conservationists had come from fishing cat range countries including Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Bangladesh, as well as non-range countries including the United States, United Kingdom, Spain and Germany.  Most people have no idea what a fishing cat is, so it was exciting to be in a room of fishing cat experts and enthusiasts.

Fishing Cat Symposium participants

Fishing Cat Symposium participants

On the first day, each participant gave an update on the status of their fishing cat population, habitat and project. I learned that while we generally say that the fishing cat’s range is “Southeast Asia”, we really are learning that the range can include any of the southern tropical Asian countries. Some Southeast Asian coutries have little traces of fishing cats and some outside of Southeast Asia have populations that are thriving.  The dense habitats that fishing cats may inhabit, as well as their elusive nature, makes determining their population numbers quite a challenge.

Sagar Dahal of the Small Mammals Conservation and Research Foundation presents the status of the fishing cat in Nepal.

Sagar Dahal of the Small Mammals Conservation and Research Foundation presents the status of the fishing cat in Nepal.

The next two days centered on strategic planning.  Participants brainstormed the various threats across the fishing cat’s range and what they think are the main issues hindering conservation of this species.  Here is where the real challenge began.  Conservation of any species is a multi-faceted issue.  In many range countries, the fishing cat competes with people for food sources (fish), and in other countries, people depend on fishing cat habitat (mangrove forests) for firewood to heat their homes and cook their food. How do you prioritize who needs a resource more? How do you approach a local community who may be struggling to subsist and get them on board with conservation of an animal that they may perceive as a threat?  These are the same questions that many conservationists must answer. Fishing cats face the same threats as many other carnivore populations – habitat loss to agriculture, urbanization and/or industrialization, human-carnivore conflicts, poaching for meat or medicinal products, retaliatory killings, collisions with cars and habitat fragmentation. Three groups formed to take on the specific topics of ecological knowledge, socio-cultural themes and policy issues.

The socio-cultural group works to identify the biggest threats to fishing cat conservation.

The socio-cultural group works to identify the biggest threats to fishing cat conservation.

In the end, each group formed objectives to add to the larger Strategic Plan.  Symposium participants agreed to the objectives and assigned themselves a contributing role to any objective where they can make a positive impact.  We pledged to implement the Strategic Plan and reconvene in five years to evaluate our progress.  The area where I feel that I can make the greatest contribution is to increase the global education and understanding of fishing cats. My first goal is to work with the conservationists to create multi-lingual literature that highlights the habitat and conservation of the fishing cat.  I hope to integrate the expertise of the Zoo’s education, signage and graphic teams to create a children’s book that can be translated into the various languages of fishing cat range countries.

Jungle trekking

Jungle trekking

We trekked through the jungle in the search of local wildlife. Mostly I just saw leeches, but the jungle teemed with potential.  In addition to fishing cats, Chitwan National Park is home to jungle cat, leopard cat, clouded leopard, leopard and tiger. So many cats!

While we did not see any cats, we found these very clear tiger tracks along the river.  We had been warned that a man-eating tigress inhabits the area, so there was some apprehension about seeing proof that she has been around the area recently.

Tiger tracks!

Tiger tracks!

While our jungle trek did not yield much wildlife, it gave us another opportunity to spend time together and discuss best practices in the field and among our communities.  Connections were made, contacts were exchanged and friendships were created, bound with the common love of fishing cats and the commitment to their conservation.

Twenty-six participants spanning nine countries from three continents met in Nepal with a common goal, to save the endangered fishing cat.  It was a rare privilege to participate in the process, to see the inner workings of a conservation planning organization and to be included in a Strategic Plan designed to take action to save a species.

I had an amazing journey to Nepal and my last moment of awe came on the airplane as I was leaving the country.  The Himalayas appeared on my side of the plane, reminding me once again that we live in a dynamic world filled with beauty and wonder, a world worth conserving. I am proud to be a part of an organization like the Cincinnati Zoo that teaches the value of conservation and supports programs that work toward global conservation and understanding of our incredible planet.

The Himalayas

The Himalayas

December 11, 2015   4 Comments

Supporting Wild Cat Conservation Education in Tamaulipas, Mexico

Mexico is one of the most biologically diverse countries in the world thanks to its large size, variety of habitats, and position as a transition zone between North America’s temperate and Central America’s tropical regions. However, little is known regarding the distribution and status of Mexico’s wildlife, including the iconic and endangered jaguar. Relatively little government land in Mexico is dedicated to conservation and most of its wildlife survives outside of protected areas. In northern Mexico, much of the land is owned by private cattle ranchers. Thus, cattle ranches have a critical role in conserving the country’s wildlife.

Jaguar (Photo: Mike Dulaney)

Jaguar (Photo: Mike Dulaney)

In 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge commissioned a non-profit organization, Conservación y Desarrollo de Espacios Naturales (CDEN), to conduct a monitoring study. CDEN used motion-sensitive cameras to determine the status of the ocelot on ranchland in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas with the hopes that the population would be healthy enough to allow the transfer of an ocelot to South Texas to boost its endangered ocelot population.

One of the most exciting results of the study was a visual record of an amazing variety of wildlife in the area. The cameras captured images of over 20 mammal species, including five wild cats: jaguars, pumas, ocelots, jaguarundis and bobcats. CDEN established the Wild Cats of Tamaulipas Binational Conservation Program (WCT) following the initial study to continue to monitor wild cats in the area and work with the local community and government to conserve them.

Wild Cats of Tamaulipas Poster

Wild Cats of Tamaulipas Poster

With support from the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, the Gladys Porter Zoo, and San Antonio Zoo, WCT established an environmental education and outreach component in 2015 to provide educational programs and materials to local communities in Tamaulipas. The goal is to make people aware of the presence of wild cats in the region and convey the importance of protecting their populations. Wild cats play important roles as predators, maintaining balanced ecosystems by keeping prey populations in check.

Between July and October, approximately 1,600 people were reached through WCT education events including:

  • an education booth at the Tamatan Zoo in Ciudad Victoria,
  • a Biology Conference at the Technological Institute of Altamira,
  • a festival at Laguna Del Carpintero Bicentennial Park in Tampico,
  • another festival in Tampico during Workforce Security, Hygiene and Environment Week,
  • and presentations at two local businesses during their annual environmental awareness week activities.

    Presenting to Biology students (Photo: Wild Cats of Tamaulipas)

    Presenting to Biology students (Photo: Wild Cats of Tamaulipas)

Activities at these various events included presentations and activity stations where people could talk to CDEN leaders, Francisco Illescas and Rossana Nuñez, about wild cats and get a good look at a camera trap and various cat skulls.

CDEN leaders, Francisco Illescas and Rossana Nuñez (Photo: Wild Cats of Tamaulipas)

CDEN leaders, Francisco Illescas and Rossana Nuñez (Photo: Wild Cats of Tamaulipas)

People could also make rubbings of jaguars and take a reusable bag of educational materials with them. The bags included crayons, jaguar activity booklets, and WCT brochures/field guides to the five wild cats, which the Cincinnati Zoo helped to create.

Educational materials (Photo: Wild Cats of Tamaulipas)

Educational materials (Photo: Wild Cats of Tamaulipas)

People could also take their picture in a large stand-in of one of the scenes from the jaguar booklet.

Photo opportunity (Photo: Wild Cats of Tamaulipas)

Photo opportunity (Photo: Wild Cats of Tamaulipas)

And, of course, the star of each event was Alan, the new jaguar mascot.

Alan, the jaguar mascot (Photo: Wild Cats of Tamaulipas)

Alan, the jaguar mascot (Photo: Wild Cats of Tamaulipas)

WCT also created and printed 10 Wild Cats of Tamaulipas posters featuring camera trap images to use at the events.

Poster featuring a camera trap image of an ocelot (Photo: Wild Cats of Tamaulipas)

Poster featuring a camera trap image of an ocelot (Photo: Wild Cats of Tamaulipas)

The events were successful in increasing the general public’s awareness of the rich biodiversity still present in Tamaulipas, particularly the presence of five wild cat species. In addition to continuing public education events in the future, WCT plans to meet with and present to ranch owners at livestock association meetings to garner their support.

November 19, 2015   1 Comment

Farewell to a Fishing Cat

Our ambassador fishing cat Minnow passed away last week at 12 years old.  Like many feline species, including the domestic housecat, Minnow struggled with renal disease in her older age and in the end, renal failure.  While 12 years old may seem young, fishing cat average lifespan is about 10-12 years old and Minnow lived a full life with us at the Cincinnati Zoo in the Cat Ambassador Program.

fishing-cat-Mark-Dumont
Minnow came to us at 16 days old from the Exotic Feline Breeding Center in CA. It is rare to see fishing cats in zoos and even more rare to see an ambassador fishing cat. In fact, Minnow was the last working ambassador fishing cat found in any Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) zoo.  We were fortunate that she was given to us because her genetics did not match with the SSP (Species Survival Plan) population.  Since she would not be fit for breeding we were allowed to try to raise her as an ambassador cat.  I say “try” because fishing cats are quite a challenge.  In the wild, they are very rare and elusive and in captivity they behave as their wild counterparts, aloof to their keepers and reluctant of any changes in their environment.

minnow with toy

The Cat Ambassador Program staff took on Minnow and met the challenge.  In her early years Minnow was one of the stars of the travelling Cat Ambassador School Program.  Trainers would take a small water tub and Minnow would show off her fishing skills for thousands of children a year across Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky.  In 2007, when the Cheetah Encounter Show yard was built at the zoo, the trainers insisted on having a deep pond, to give Minnow a chance to show off her natural behavior for guests at the zoo.  True to her cautious species, Minnow was not immediately a fan of the pond and of the large wide open space in the new yard since fishing cats live in marshlands in Southeast Asia and are nocturnal.  It took a full year of training with Minnow for her to be comfortable fishing in the pond and appearing reliably in the show.  Between 2008- 2015 Minnow appeared in the summer Cheetah Encounter Show.  She appeared on sunny warm days and on days when she was interested in participating.  While she loved to fish, she was after all, a wild fishing cat, and life moved on her terms.

Minnow winter 05 2

Fishing cats are not well known so many visitors were surprised to see this small black and gray cat diving in head first into a pond.  There were many “oohs” and “aahs” when she performed her “high dive” behavior – leaping off a platform and diving into the pond after a fish.  She was a great addition to the show, giving us the opportunity to talk about the diversity and uniqueness of cat species around the world.  People also loved to see her slink down into the short green grass, pretending to camouflage, as she ignored her trainers requests to retreat out of the yard.  She was a small cat with a big attitude.  An attitude that while sometimes tough to train was the mark of her species.  As animal trainers we learned so much from Minnow.  She taught us how to work with and not against natural behavior, how to give an animal time and space when it needed it, patience, perseverance when training a “difficult” cat and above all, more patience.

fishing cat

As with all our ambassador cats, our constant hope is to inspire visitors to learn more about the species we share.  Minnow was no exception.  We hope that the hundreds of thousands of visitors that saw Minnow at a school program or at the zoo were inspired to learn more about her species and how their daily actions can help her native cousins in SE Asia.   Minnow inspired me personally as well.  Last year I took on the role of Education Advisor for the Fishing Cat SSP (Species Survival Plan). I created a Facebook page , where Minnow is often the subject, and started to work on collaborating with fishing cat researchers across SE Asia to learn how we can do more.  In the last year we have organized fishing cat fundraising events through our American Association of Zoo Keepers (AAZK) chapter in Cincinnati to support conservation research and as I write this I am preparing to travel to Nepal next week, to meet in person with researchers from around SE Asia at the first ever Fishing Cat Symposium.  My hope is to come back with specific knowledge about the plight of the fishing cat and how we can help from across the globe, to make a difference for this unique and endangered species.  My love for fishing cats started with Minnow but it has now extended beyond her, and I am committed to global fishing cat conservation because of her.

While Minnow may no longer be around physically, she will always be in our hearts and minds. She was a unique and dynamic individual and the bond that we formed with her can never be forgotten. We will carry forth her memory as we continue to educate and inspire visitors at the Cincinnati Zoo and beyond and we will continue to work to preserve all endangered cat species, including the fishing cat.

Goodbye sweet Minnow- we are forever grateful for the 12 years you were with us. Thank you for letting us into your fishing cat world.

Minnow and her trainer, Linda

Minnow and her trainer, Linda

November 17, 2015   19 Comments