Sob stories about endangered species are so 2011. So instead we’re sending you a tale about a CAT in WATER. A story about how community, photos and film are giving an endangered animal, the aptly named fishing cat, a chance at survival.
Around this time last year, my friend Joanna Nasar, and I decided to dream big on a conservation project. We also dreamed a bit silly.
“Let’s pick a species that needs help and takes us to a faraway land,” we thought. How about fishing cats? Their name is their occupation. They bark like a dog. They’re found in Thailand. And believe me this cat needs all the help it can get. Less than 10,000 remain in the world, and that’s a sketchy estimate at best.
Practicality was clearly in the back seat tied up with duct tape when we set out. We don’t have any money. Um, have you heard of this thing called Kickstarter? We don’t speak Thai. Pah! We’re good at charades. The country is flooding, and we have to go undercover as tourists to avoid constant scrutiny. Brilliant! I’ve never camera-trapped before, but we can figure that out. “We can handle this,” we thought. We’ll be working with the world expert on fishing cats, Passanan “Namfon” Cutter. Yes Namfon, we just officially gave you that title.
In some ways, our naivety was both our downfall and saving grace. Everything that could fall apart did. Namfon, who we hoped to work with for a few weeks, returned to the states after four days together because of visa issues. We had more than a month left in Thailand to work with her assistant Ruj, (who didn’t speak English), trying to document everything we could about this cat.
Equipment failed almost daily, habitat was destroyed, fishing cats killed, and we got to know the Thai healthcare system on more than one occasion. (Thailand proved to be an effective, though not fun diet program. Note for all those pending travelers to Thailand, Thai healthcare rocks!) Six weeks into the trip, signs of the fishing cat were everywhere, except in front of the camera trap.
As everything fell apart, the story also started to come together. Our clumsiness held a certain fascination and charm with the Thai people. I think they wanted to save us from ourselves. Everyday we learned a little bit (nit noy) of Thai and Ruj learned a little English. The Thai people welcomed us into their community. We ate dinner with their families, visited kids in their schools, worked together to fix the things that were broken and continued the search for a fishing cat that seemed to move like a ghost throughout these people’s lives.
Amidst the fishing cat’s crumbling world, we heard tell of a glimmer of hope. We learned that you could rent fishing cat land for less money a year than I spend on coffee in a month. For 80 bucks you could either destroy or save a parcel of fishing cat habitat. Namfon told us that just US $1,700, could rent all the known fishing cat hotspots for a year. “Wow!” we thought. Such goals seemed attainable even for two girls who had just rationed their last packet of Oreos.
We sent this message and a few photos to The WILD Foundation, our main project sponsor, and before we’d even left Thailand, people had reached into their pockets and given enough money to rent land for the fishing cat. The purchase won’t be a permanent fix, but it buys the cats and our researcher friends some time. It shows the communities there that the rest of the world cares about the fishing cat.
Our work is far from over. Jo and I returned from Thailand with more than two terabytes of footage about the fishing cat. In the last week and half of our trip, persistence paid off and we received not one, but three, visits from a fishing cat named Rip Ear to our trap. The photos are top secret while we try to publish them in a major magazine. But we’ve got an early, almost-successful shot we can share with you now. It’s of a newly observed male in the area, and has yet to be named.
We are now editing together a film about our girlventure to a foreign land in search of this strange, endangered cat, including all the characters we met along the way who helped/saved us. We will use the film to raise money for fishing cat conservation and to build local support for the cat’s protection.
Right now, Jo and I are doing this purely out of passion. We work on other projects during the day, so we can edit the film together at night. We dream of working on this full-time, so that we can produce a film at a pace that will actually be able to help the fishing cat.
As I write this now though I can tell you that throughout CAT in WATER, the biggest lesson we learned is that saving the fishing cat depends on community, in Thailand and abroad. That’s what we want to help foster.
So we have a message for you. You’ve got the link to CAT in WATER. “The fishing cat wants to swim.” Pass it on, tweet it, retweet it, facebook and digg it. Then pass it on again and again and again.