Let us start with a bet. If a week goes by without a human-fishing cat conflict news surfacing on media, in the coming months, you win.
It is one challenge that The Business Standard Earth would be happy to lose.
Tragically, this sort of news is popping out from every corner of Bangladesh.
Numerous videos are emerging all over social media, where a mob 'bravely' catches a fishing cat or thrashes the ill-fated animal to its death.
These animals are facing such gruesome treatment just for taking a chicken from the backyard.
They are run over by speeding vehicles. Whenever spotted, out of fear and stigma, their kittens are taken into custody.
With all the homesteads and natural wetlands disappearing, where would they go?
I tried to sense the desperation of a fishing cat that mothered a litter with nowhere to hide. I found no words to describe the misery.
Responsible Forest Department officials, concerned citizens and expert biologists are startled by so many of these heartbreaking incidences.
One such community in Moulvibazar, northeast Bangladesh has decided to stand up for the fishing cats.
They take the Herculean task of saving fishing cats in a land that is plagued by human-wildlife conflicts. They are friends of the fishing cat.
A cat out of water
Fishing cats are unique. They are synonymous with wetlands.
Weighing a maximum of 15kg, these small cats are slightly bigger than a domestic pussycat with a robust palate for a fish-dominated diet.
They are also one of the few felid species that love to wade through water and evolve when needed.
Fishing cats are nocturnal. They have webbing between their toes to catch fish efficiently.
However, the exceptional feats cannot protect this fascinating cat from a human-driven extinction crisis.
The rapid destruction of wetlands, which are purposefully being filled, polluted and converted, is a major threat.
As a result of the destruction, it became a conflict species, for they are compelled to catch fish from farms.
Over-exploitation has already depleted natural fish stocks, their regular food source.
Formed by filmmakers, photographers, journalists, lawyers, and animal activists, Stand for our Endangered Wildlife (SEW) is a Facebook-based group based out of Moulvibazaar.
The members keep a sharp eye on everything that is a possible breach of the existing Wildlife (Conservation and Security) Act, 2012.
"We note incidents on the human-wildlife conflict, wildlife abuse, illegal trade, activities that are potential threats to wildlife habitats", two SEW members, Sohel Shyam, an animal activist, and Hasan Rahman, a lawyer, said during our first meeting.
Khukon Thounaujam, a photographer and a SEW member, added, "Anything that catches our eyes is duly and instantly reported to the forest department personnel."
SEW has already assisted in nearly hundreds of rescue operations in Moulvibazar and adjacent areas.
They have added many academicians, law-enforcing authorities and journalists to their Facebook platform.
Now, the group has nearly 1,000 members. Several of them are known for jumping in on a 300km ride for a rescue operation.
They are known to spend sleepless nights tracking locations of wildlife being kept illegally in remote areas.
What drove the beginning of SEW? It started with Pavel Partho, a photographer and a founding SEW member and his fascination with the fishing cat.
A DFO with a scientific approach
Md Rezaul Karim Chowdhury, divisional forest officer (DFO), Wildlife Management and Nature Conservation Division, Sylhet, and his team complete the loop.
"We are extending our best support to SEW. I appreciate what they are doing," the DFO shared.
"The logistic provision provided to SEW resulted in multiple successful rescue-and-release of fishing cats among many threatened wildlife," he added.
Regarding possible mitigation strategies to stem such conflicts, Rezaul Karim highlighted systematic approaches, "These cats need to be radio-collared. If we can assess their home range, only then can we show the locals proof that the cats prefer to stay out of human reach."
He added, "Also, to break local stigma, we need to show them what fishing cats truly eat. We can achieve this by scat analysis."
Speaking about Lawachara, an often-used release site of rescued cats, the DFO discussed two recent successes.
"Taking four newly born, less-than week-old cubs into custody is largely a death sentence. Rather, I inspired the locality to keep the cubs at the place they were spotted. By the sunset, the mother, in both the cases, took them to safety," he shared with us.
He concluded our conversation with a heart-warming story.
"Last month, we received news from Jagannathpur (a sub-district of Sunamganj). We were called in to retrieve a caged cat. By the time my team reached there, the cat had given birth to four kittens!"
He went on, "We immediately decided to release the whole pack right at the conflict spots. The mother returned after the initial flight and took her litter to safety, as we had predicted. The locals were also touched by this event."
Scratching the surface
The fishing cat is endangered in Bangladesh. The cat has lost nearly half of its population in just 10 years.
The area of occupancy can be as less as 500 sq km, and the number of mature individuals can be as low as 2,500 individuals.
Yet, Bangladesh holds some of the largest source populations of the species.
These are the Haor Basin (saucer-shaped shallow depression/back swamp) region of northeastern Bangladesh, the Chalan Beel (inland depression) of northern Bangladesh and the southern mangroves and marshes areas. The latter two are completely unattended.
In West Bengal, 27 dead fishing cats were recorded between 2010–2011. Furthermore, in a study in Thailand, 84% of all fishing cats that were tracked via radio collars were killed – either due to poaching or unknown causes.
In Bangladesh, between 2010–2013, at least 30 fishing cats were killed; a recent database shows a high number with about 600 conflict news.
Amid the ongoing elephant massacre, these numbers add extra worries. But the brave friends of the fishing cat go on working to keep up our conservation efforts.