Fireflies pulsing a neon blue illuminate the trees with a mystical glow, while the chirps and rustles of unseen creatures blend with chanting from a distant temple to create a strange, otherworldly music. It’s an ethereal moment. I’m out on a night walk in central Sri Lanka, hoping to catch a glimpse of an endangered species: the little-known and secretive fishing cat.
In front of me, my soft-spoken and keen-eyed guide, Chaminda Jayasekara, is sweeping the red beam of his headlamp up the branches of the overhanging trees and down into the undergrowth on either side of the narrow forest trail. We scan the reed beds and paddy fields hopefully for the tell-tale reflection of feline eyes. Our search has already revealed an Asian palm civet picking its way through the long grass, brightly coloured sunbirds roosting above our heads, an affronted-looking scops owl and, most exciting of all, a pregnant grey slender loris. Yet, there’s no sign of the fishing cats I’ve come to Sri Lanka to see.
About twice the size of your regular domestic feline, fishing cats are like mini leopards, Sri Lanka’s biggest and most famous wild cat. Dappled or striped grey in colour, they’re surprisingly lithe and muscular despite their relatively small size. Found in wetland areas across Asia (including Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Nepal and India), they predominantly feed on fish and are capable of swimming long distances.
Significantly, Colombo is the only urban environment in the world in which they can be found. Much like the infamous city-dwelling leopards of Mumbai, they’ve somehow managed to find a way to live alongside humans in the concrete jungle, thanks to the tracts of wetland that criss-cross the capital.
With the clock now way past midnight, Chaminda and I reluctantly concede defeat on our nocturnal safari and head back to the lobby at Jetwing Vil Uyana, where he has been the resident naturalist for the past seven years. Situated a four-hour drive north-west of Colombo, the resort boasts 36 luxe villas dotted around a verdant manmade wetland ecosystem of tree-encircled ponds, forested thickets and rice paddies. For me, however, the resort’s biggest draw is undoubtedly the fact that it plays host to a sizeable population of fishing cats.
But it’s not just the elusive felines that call the place home. Earlier that evening, while at the resort’s open-air library, I found myself overcome by the sheer abundance of wildlife before my eyes. It’s hard to believe that 10 years ago, the 25 acres that make up the eco-resort were just rough scrubland. Today, I’m presented with an idyllic scene that could have been lifted from an episode of Planet Earth.
As the setting sun paints the surface of the lake a burnished gold, a bright blue kingfisher plunges into the water, emerging moments later with a glittering fish struggling in its beak. A pair of cormorants are busy on their own hunt, a trail of bubbles marking the path of their underwater fishing expedition. Overhead, a flock of bright green, rose-ringed parakeets soar chattering by, while a troupe of langurs squabble loudly in a nearby tree.
“This isn’t a hotel,” Chaminda says, his eyes lighting up as he describes his enchanting workplace. “It’s a nature park.” With over 100 species of birds and 20 different kinds of mammals – including, of course, fishing cats – residing here, it’s hard to argue.
A few days later, I’m standing on an islet in the middle of a different wetland, watching my two companions sift through a pile of fresh excrement. It’s only 9am, but the sun is already beating relentlessly down on us. We’re sweating profusely as we survey the dung – earthy evidence that a fishing cat has been here, and very recently.
“Can you smell that? It’s their musk!” enthuses Anya Ratnayaka, breathing deeply. The effusive 28-year-old is the principal investigator of the Urban Fishing Cat Project, a conservation scheme that’s trying to gauge exactly how many fishing cats call the wetlands, canals, sewers and even the back gardens of Colombo home. The lifelong animal lover set up the project back in 2013 and has been attempting to photograph and collar the cats to learn more about their behaviour ever since.
I’m spending the day shadowing Anya while she undertakes her research at the newly opened Thalawathugoda Biodiversity Study Park. I’m here to help her and her field assistant, the wonderfully stoic Maduranga Ranaweera, as they check their camera traps and search for signs of the fishing cats.
Separated from Sri Lanka’s imposing parliament building by a busy road, Thalawathugoda was only opened to the public this year. One of a series of new wetland projects created by the Land Reclamation & Urban Development Corporation, it was built to enhance the city’s flood defences and help regulate temperatures – two key roles performed by wetlands. It also offers a natural refuge to a host of animals, from otters to cranes. I find it hard to believe that I’m just 20 minutes by taxi from the five-star hotels, office blocks and construction sites of downtown Colombo.
“I like being surrounded by animals,” confides Maduranga, a former trishaw driver who switched careers to help Anya with her study programme. “I love the days when we walk to a trap and see a cat inside.”
Anya, who sports a tattoo of an orphaned rusty spotted cat on her arm, admits that those days are few and far between. “It can be very frustrating,” she declares. “They are just so secretive and hard to spot, so very little is known about them.”
Fishing cats are secretive, so very little is known about them
As we methodically check the batteries and images on the camera traps, which are strapped to trees and bushes, Anya confesses that she’s never seen any of the park’s four resident felines. In fact, aside from those she has caught on camera, or the three cats she has trapped for electronic tagging, she has only really seen one other fishing cat in the wild, in the back garden of a house. “I was so excited that I couldn’t stop squealing. It eventually got annoyed and slunk away,” she laughs.
However, despite the fresh excrement and pungent scent marks, the fishing cats of Thalawathugoda remain infuriatingly hidden. “You can see them on the cameras, sitting next to the trap – even on top of it – but they just refuse to go in,” Anya says of previous attempts to catch the wily creatures.
As the sun climbs towards its zenith and the temperature rises to uncomfortable levels, it becomes clear that the piles of sun-bleached dung are the closest I’m going to get to glimpsing a fishing cat on this trip. I feel some regret at this realisation, but only a tinge.
After all, I’ve been given the chance to meet some remarkable individuals and learn more about their worthy cause, if only for a few days. I’ve learned first-hand that tracking down a fishing cat is no easy feat. It’s a long process – one that takes many months – with no guarantee of success. Coupled with a lack of funding and difficulties importing research equipment, Anya and her team have the patience and dedication of true devotees.
Above all else, my trip has also enabled me to immerse myself in Sri Lanka’s bountiful landscapes and learn about some of the exceptional creatures that call this magical island home.
This article was originally published in the June 2017 issue of Silkwinds magazine.