PHNOM PENH, Cambodia, Sept. 3 (UPI) -- Fishing cats are a rare species of predatory feline found in South and Southeast Asia. For decades, fishing cat populations have been in decline.
Today, most fishing cats are confined to Nepal, east India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The cat has disappeared from both Malaysia and Vietnam. But recent sightings in Cambodia suggests the cat may still be eking out an existence in the more remote corners of Southeast Asia.
The latest sightings were made possible by a remote cameras set up by researchers with Cambodia's Center for Biodiversity Conservation (CBC) -- a collaboration between Fauna & Flora International and the Royal University of Phnom Penh.
Several cats, both male and female, were found among images collected at two locations in southwest Cambodia, within Peam Krosaop Wildlife Sanctuary and Ream National Park.
"This is a remarkable discovery as fishing cats are very vulnerable to human persecution," CBC researcher Ret Thaung said in a press release. "We are especially pleased to see both a male and female cat."
The endangered cat is about twice the size of a house cat, with short legs and a long body. Its appearance leopard-like, spotted and stealthy. The species is mostly nocturnal and named for its preference for habitat near wetlands, rivers, streams, oxbow lakes and mangrove swamps.
In addition to the threat of hunting, the loss of swamps and wetlands to agricultural production and land reclamation is the main reason for the cat's decline.
Fishing cats are already protected in Cambodia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, but conservationists say more aggressive protections and habitat restoration are necessary to save the animal from extinction.
"It's not just fishing cats that need protection, as mangrove and freshwater wetland habitats provide an irreplaceable home for many other species including otters, birds, Siamese crocodiles and fish," Thaung said.
The remote cameras captured the presence of several other vulnerable species, including Sunda pangolin, hog deer, smooth-coated otter, large-spotted civet and sambar deer.
Thaung and her colleagues at CBC have begun a campaign to better protect fishing cats and other species native to the wetlands of Southeast Asia.
"This will primarily involve community education and measures to reduce threats," she said. "We also plan to continue our research and improve the ability of local rangers to correctly identify fishing cats and help with research and conservation for the species."