In the many years of traipsing through Kerala, the fishing cat didn’t figure in conversations with our jungle-trekking companions. No one I knew had ever seen it. Recently, when our friend Manori Gunawardena in Sri Lanka sent pictures of an orphaned kitten she was rearing, I wondered if the species was absent from south India.
At first glance, it seems to belong to wetlands and mangroves along the coast, from northern Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Bengal, Bangladesh, and into Southeast Asia. But it’s also found far inland in Rajasthan’s Ranthambore and Bharatpur, and along the foothills of the Himalayas. If it can be found in isolated pockets in a desert state, why not in the verdant west coast? Besides, the species must need a launching pad somewhere in south India to colonise Sri Lanka.
In 1874, zoologist Thomas Jerdon who served as civil surgeon in Thalassery, north Kerala, wrote the comprehensive The Mammals of India. He reported the tiger cat, as he called the feisty species, was, “tolerably common in Travancore and Ceylon, extending up the Malabar Coast as far as Mangalore.”
In November 1903, herpetologist Capt. Frank Wall found a kitten while out snipe hunting near Kannur, north Kerala. Stanley Prater, author of the 1948 treatise The Book of Indian Animals, also reported a kitten from the same area. Wildlife enthusiast Roopak Gangadharan says an elderly fisherman in the backwaters of the region identified the species as kuri-nari, meaning ‘dwarf tiger.’ What an appropriate name for a hefty, feisty cat!
Did the west coast habitat change more than the species could tolerate? In 2011, Tiasa Adhya, a student of wildlife biology at National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore, surveyed the highly human populated districts of Howrah and Hooghly around Kolkata. In her report, she noted dense stands of native reeds were vital for the species to survive. But how does one explain the fishing cat’s adaptability elsewhere? Last month, one fell into a village well on the banks of the heavily polluted River Yamuna, not far downstream from Delhi. In Sri Lanka, it prowls the outskirts of Colombo city and tea estates in the hilly heart of the island.
Did a shortage of prey in Kerala do the cat in? It lives primarily on fish and molluscs, grabs waterfowl by their legs by swimming underwater, and around villages, is notorious for taking poultry and goats.
Jerdon quoted a Mr. Baker from Malabar, “it often kills pariah dogs, and that he has known instances of slave children (infants) being taken from their huts by this cat”. In Colombo, where waterways are polluted and fish may be hard to find, it takes stray dogs and cats.
Perhaps the problem wasn’t habitat or prey but people’s dislike of the species. Tiasa noted Bengali villagers set out poison and traps for livestock-taking cats. It’s possible such hounding could have led to its local extinction from Kerala. There is one problem with this theory — there is no evidence.
However, there’s another possibility — the cat never inhabited the west coast, even though the landscape seems ideal.
Ignoring Jerdon and Wall’s observations, zoologist Reginald Innes Pocock failed to mention Kerala as fishing cat territory without providing any reasons. He edited the second edition of The Fauna of British India: Mammalia in 1939 without setting foot in India.
If the fishing cat didn’t make it to the west coast, did it colonisze Sri Lanka from the dry east coast? Evidence it ever lived in arid Tamil Nadu is scarcer still. Shomita Mukherjee, a biologist working on cats, hypothesises that the higher salinity of the Arabian Sea may account for the absence of the species along the Malabar Coast. If coastal waters are saline, what prevents the fishing cat from prowling inland through the hills of the Western Ghats as it does in the Sri Lankan highlands? We are none the wiser as we have no hide nor scat nor photo of the species from Kerala.
All we have is an enigmatic name: kuri-nari.