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Visiting West Bengal’s Nocturnal Cats

Visiting West Bengal’s Nocturnal Cats

Maitreyee Mujumdar, the Project Coordinator of the Sanctuary Nature Foundation’s Mud on Boots Project, writes about her field visit to West Bengal to explore conservation initiatives undertaken by Project Leader Joydeb Pradhan.

Photo: Maitreyee Mujumdar.

Concealed behind dense canopies of bamboo and long stretches of lush green khori (Saccharum narenga), the village Sarada, in the Amta II block of Howrah, welcomed us. Sarada and its neighbouring villages are lined with small ponds bound by coconut, banana and toddy palm trees. These little patches of marshlands support tall reeds such as khori and hogla (Typha sp.), providing an ideal habitat for fishing cats.

“The district of Howrah is named after the word haor – Bengali for wetland”, explained conservation biologist Tiasa Adhya as we walked along the unpaved roads of Sarada. Apart from being ecologically important, these marshlands provide the villagers with two major sources of income – fishing and khori cultivation.

Joydeb Pradhan, 68, is Sanctuary Nature Foundation’s oldest project leader under the Mud on Boots Project. He escorted us to the headquarters of his NGO – Sarada Prasad Tirtha Janakalyan Samiti. Upon reaching his office, Joydeb spoke about Prasad Chakrabarty, a social reformer from his village, whose work inspired him to start his NGO. Apart from conducting various social activities, Joydeb’s organisation, under the guidance of Sanctuary Wildlife Service Award winner Tiasa Adhya, spearheads fishing cat conservation initiatives in the region.

Photo: Maitreyee Mujumdar.

Fishing cats occasionally prey upon the villagers’ goats, and this breeds resentment within the community. In order to mitigate this conflict and build tolerance towards these marshland predators, one of the initiatives under Sanctuary’s Mud On Boots Project is to provide one juvenile and one pregnant goat each to 12 economically challenged families in the village. One goat each can be retrieved from these families, whenever required by another family, building a sustainable circulatory seed goat reserve system. As we went around the village, meeting these project beneficiaries, they affectionately pointed out their goats to us.

With the support of Howrah Zilla Parishad, Joydeb has established a fishing cat protection committee in his village. Such committees, spread across Amta II, have empowered the villagers to protect the little-known state animal of West Bengal. The members of these protection committees also provide their assistance to researchers conducting scientific studies. These consistent conservation efforts by Joydeb and Tiasa have increased awareness amongst villagers.

Some of the locals stopped to discuss the movement of the fishing cats in the area with Tiasa, animatedly enacting their encounters with the nocturnal felines. Now, actively involved in conservation initiatives, thanks in no small part to Tiasa and Joydeb, these villagers can be identified as the ‘highly invested stakeholders’ of this project. It was fascinating to observe some of these stakeholders track fishing cats through the night. With innate precision, they identified key locations for camera traps, and these cameras recorded a considerable amount of fishing cat activity.

Photo: Maitreyee Mujumdar.

As we trudged through the fields with small torches to guide us through the dark night, our companions kept us entertained with their ghost stories. In fact, one of them solemnly informed us of a ghost’s presence inside the camera trap!

Unlike other districts of Howrah where large stretches of wetlands are being acquired for industrial use, around 30 sq. km. of Amta II has been proposed to be declared a biodiversity heritage site. This stands testament to the sustained community efforts undertaken towards conservation of the fishing cat and its habitat.

The Mud on Boots initiative supports grassroots conservationists across the country. As I sat with Joydeb and his family, poring over the April issue of Sanctuary magazine which covered this initiative, Joydeb, proudly pointed at his name, and with a smile whispered the words — “Project Leader!”

Maitreyee Mujumdar is a nature-lover and the Project Coordinator of the Sanctuary Nature Foundation’s Mud on Boots Project. She previously coordinated a research project with the Pahadi Korwa tribe of Chhattisgarh.

Author: Maitreyee Mujumdar.


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