Fishing for Answers: GPS Collaring Fishing Cats in Thailand

By Laurel Serieys, Ph.D.
Conservation Scientist, Small Cats Program

Fishing cat with fish in mouth

Learn more about Dr. Laurel Serieys' travels to Thailand to conduct research on the livelihoods of fishing cats alongside our team. 

In my role as the capture and collaring specialist for the Small Cats Program, I am fortunate to work around the world, training teams how to capture, collar and monitor various small cat species. In May 2022, I traveled to Thailand to work with Panthera Thailand’s fishing cat team. I was particularly excited to work on the fishing cat project — I’d never been to Thailand, and fishing cats are one of my favorite species of small cats! 

Their Thai name translates to “fish tiger,” yet they look more like small leopards than tigers. They have olive-colored coats with striking spots, short tails (relative to other cat species) and small feet such that it almost looks like they are walking on stilts. Their paws are partially webbed, and claws do not retract. Their name gives away one of their talents — catching fish. Sometimes, they will patiently fish at the bank of ponds, streams, and rivers, but they also go swimming to catch their fish prey, and when they do, it’s thought that their short tails help act as a rudder. But their name shouldn’t fool you — they also hunt a variety of other prey species, including small animals like mice and birds.   

After flying into Bangkok, Cha-Aim, the fishing cat field technician, picked me up and we headed to Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park —a four-hour drive south. The area where we are studying fishing cats is at the base of the Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park, situated in peninsular Thailand on the coast in the Gulf of Thailand. Here, at the base of the steep mountains, there is a small community of shrimp and fish farmers. The wetlands and mangroves at the base of the mountains are increasingly being transformed into shrimp farms, fish ponds and rice fields. Even though the protected park is nearby, fishing cats prefer the flat landscape at the base of the mountains. Thus, they increasingly find themselves moving through the landscape being transformed primarily by shrimp farms. Therefore, a critical question for our project is how these fishing cats are adapting to this rapid landscape change and utilizing the landscape around the shrimp farms, fish ponds and rice fields.   

Shrimp farm Thailand

The goal of the project was to capture five fishing cats (three males and two females) and place GPS-collars on them. We want to know — what is their home range size? How do they use habitat that is fragmented by the shrimp farms and fish ponds? What are the threats to their survival? And using the collar data, can we learn more about what they prey on (since they eat more than just fish)? 

Once at the field site, I got to work. I trained the team to program the GPS collars and we modified the ten trapping cages that were built in Thailand. Next, we scouted areas to set traps — Supawat, who is leading the project, and others worked for months before I arrived to scout areas to place camera traps so they could learn which areas fishing cats routinely travel through. Once we determined the ten sites, we set the cage traps and were ready to begin. 

Fishing cat with fish n mouth

During our study, we captured three fishing cats, although two were too young and small to collar. Still, it was thrilling to see the team manage the captures. In the course of our work, the team was always optimistic and cheerful. 

Soon after I left, the team caught three more fishing cats and they continue to work on catching more. Unfortunately, two of the collared cats have already died. One was killed by another fishing cat, but we are still unsure how the other one died. But what I’ve learned after working in human-dominated landscapes is that wild cats die more often than you’d expect. Living in landscapes with so many challenges — cars, feral dogs, habitat loss and destruction, poison and diseases — small wild cats face big problems and often die young. 

The team and I stay in regular communication, discussing equipment problems, trapping strategies, how the collared cats move and the new things we are learning from the collar data. One of the things we’ve learned from our first collared cat is that their home ranges are relatively small. During the six weeks he was collared (before he died), he used an area only of 6 km2 (2.3 square miles). Additionally, we learned that he was killed by another fishing cat. These are things we would not have known without GPS collars. 

Panthera Thailand fishing cat

Moving forward, the team will continue to trap and put collars on the fishing cats and monitor their behavior. I am eager to see how the project unfolds and the knowledge we will gather from these fishing cats. Collar data and answers to some of our key study questions will help inform conservation action plans for the species.

Learn more about our work studying fishing cats in Thailand.