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Looking Out for the Little Ones

06 Jan 2020

By Bernadine Rodrigo Sri Lanka, as most of us are well aware, is an extremely important biodiversity hotspot. Our ecosystems are very concentrated and we play a pivotal role in maintaining balance in the ecological functions of the globe. However, as most often we hear mainly of the great elephant and majestic leopard, we could sometimes be led to ask the question of why Sri Lanka is such a popular destination for its diversity of species – after all, we speak of the same species every day! As such, we sometimes wonder what these other species that add to our diversity are. Wildlife biologist and conservationist Anya Ratnayaka has an excellent example to show for this. She is the Founder of the “Urban Fishing Cat Conservation Project” which focuses on a species we have barely ever heard of – the fishing cat. │ Contd. on page 2 │ As such, we sometimes wonder what these other species that add to our diversity are. Wildlife biologist and conservationist Anya Ratnayaka has an excellent example to show for this. She is the Founder of the “Urban Fishing Cat Conservation Project” which focuses its attention on a species we have barely ever heard of – the fishing cat. The fishing cat is a small animal which can even sometimes be mistaken for a domestic cat, but is generally found in wetland habitats such as those found in Sri Lanka. Ratnayaka, who has now devoted her life to the project, discovered this species back in 2013 while doing a study on leopards. She has always been interested in animals ever since she was a kid, as she said: “I was always uncomfortable around people, but feel very at home around animals. This something everyone knew I would involve myself in.” She remembers how she began the project seven years ago. “When I witnessed my first finishing cat, I had no idea what it was. I met a colleague who was looking after a fishing cat – a kitten – the Wildlife Department had given her. After interacting and looking after the cat for just an evening I came home and deleted my leopard study. “I wanted to work with the small cats after that, because there are 41 species of cat in the world, out of which seven are big cats, and they are the only cat species that I have really heard of – the leopard, lion, and tiger. There are 34 species of small cats I hadn’t heard of! I think I did know about the bob cat and lynx, but hadn’t heard of any others.” The interesting fact here is that these aren’t simply breeds of cats, they are actually different species. “It’s just incredible,” Ratnayaka continued: “The amount of wildlife that’s out there which people aren’t exposed to because the media always focuses on the charismatic and big animals. “That was it for me with the leopard. So I started this project and I’ve been working on it since. We are fortunate enough to have this animal in our country; there are so many incredible animals out there which people don’t even know about just because they are all focusing on the big animals like the leopard and the elephant.” What Ratnayaka is trying to do is to make the fishing cat the ambassador or logo of Colombo. However, one might question why just Colombo. She said this is so because the animal is in fact quite special in Colombo. Ratnayaka methodically explained how: “They are a wetland specialist species,” she starts, “so they are generally found in water-rich habitats. The species is found in South and Southeast Asia. The cats we find in Colombo are the only population that is found in a hyper-urban landscape,” she concluded. She said this is extremely rare as these cats are never found in such an urban area. They can be sometimes found in the borders of cities but in Colombo, they are found slap-bang in the middle, making them extremely unique. Hence, it makes a lot of sense to consider these animals as ambassadors of the city. Conservation is not easy, Ratnayaka said, and it was at first rather difficult for her to get the necessary permission and such to go about her work, “especially since wetlands aren’t – or weren’t considered – important habitats for a very long time and weren’t given priority”. However, she sees hope in the situation, stating: “I think our Government has realised that they are in fact very important for many reasons. For example, they stop the city from flooding by absorbing the excess water. Because of that, the Government initiated the Wetland Management Strategy which was created to rehabilitate the wetlands in Colombo.” Because of this, she also wishes to use the fishing cat as a flagship species for wetland conservation as well. She believes that doing this will get the general public to appreciate these landscapes more and she also believes that it seems to be working. In her experience, she thinks that we now see a huge rise in people visiting these places, “with their kids, on weekends, and after school,” she said. “They are walking around with binoculars, bird books, taking pictures – it is something we didn’t see before.” She thinks that these parks opening up as a result of the Wetland Management Strategy are the reason behind this increase in public interest. “Before they started popping up, the only people visiting the wetlands were the true ornithologists or birdwatchers, but now we see families coming here and enjoying their afternoons walking around, getting on the boats, and just having fun. It’s good because it helps promote these places and the importance of these landscapes as recreational spaces and not places where garbage is tossed.” She went on to explain the benefits of the Urban Fishing Cat Programme and its importance in the conservation of the wetlands. “The project focuses on studying the species because they are the largest terrestrial predator and are the largest species which have home rangers in the area. We are using them as an umbrella species, actually. An umbrella species is an animal with a large home range, so by protecting it, you, in turn, protect everything around it. “So, by looking after the fishing cat, not just because it’s an endangered species and not just because having them here is pretty cool, you end up protecting the wetlands and its other creatures too.” What the project does is capture the cats in Colombo and attach GPS tags to them and study how they utilise their landscape and how often they stay or move out of these areas. In this way, we are also able to see what kind of habitats outside of wetlands they are able to use. This also enables the study of what is known as “wildlife corridors”, i.e. the areas used by the species to get from one place to the other. These days, Ratnayaka’s team is actually collecting and cleaning scat found in the Diyasaru Park in Thalawathugoda in order to understand the diet of this species so that their prey and other forms of food can be identified and protected as well. She works closely with some colleagues working in other areas such as Kandy and Girithale so that the consumption patterns of the animals in Colombo can be investigated. An interesting feature of their study is the camera tracking of these animals which is used to confirm with assuredness the presence of them in these areas. After collecting the data, Ratnayaka shares her newfound knowledge with government stakeholders as the project must be done in collaboration with the Government. Ratnayaka said that she fully supports this because it is always better to know that the rulers of the country are involved and that they care. She offered advice on how to go about starting a wildlife study or project. “The first time is always very difficult, but you cannot handle or study wildlife outside your garden without a permit from the Wildlife Department. As long as you work properly and treat the animals well and work well with the departments, it won’t be that bad. You should always maintain a good relationship with them and be as transparent as possible. “Even when it’s the first time you want to get your permit, although it’s difficult, it’s not like you won’t get it. It’s just the initial confusion, that’s all. When you have to renew it ever year, it gets easier.” Ratnayaka strongly believes that there is hope for conservation, but she wishes to make it very clear that the small but incredible animals too should be given as much priority as the big ones.

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