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The Fishing Cat and Jungle Babbler

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In the Central Terai, there lies an ox-bow lake in the middle of a beautiful forest forming a striking wetland. Within the branches of the lake tall reeds form a marsh the reeds reach between the trees and form a scenic view, giving the wetlands its natural beauty. Within the catchment of this lake lies an agricultural area where humans harvest their crops every year.

In a nearby tree, a family of jungle babblers resides. A young female babbler, named Babbly, is very excited.  She recently found her mate and they build a nest together in a shrub close to the lake.  After a few days she laid four blue eggs. Babbly and her partner were happy, expecting to be parents soon.

One day, an animal appeared close to them. She had two black stripes on her cheeks and black parallel lines starting on her head and running down her back.  She had short limbs and a short tail and spots on her yellowish-grey fur coat.  The babbler couple recognized that the animal was a fishing cat and referred to her as Cat. Seeing her, Babbly and her partner were frightened and flew away. With the parents away, the hungry fishing cat fed on all Babbly’s blue eggs. Babbly, perched in the branch of nearby tree, looked on sadly.  After losing her eggs, Babbly learned, and from then on she only built her nests on high branches of a tree.

A few weeks later, Cat made her den in the reed bushes close to Babbly’s nest. Anytime that Babbly saw Cat, she remembered the incidence and missed her eggs badly.  Unknowingly, Babbly developed a habit to check the activity of Cat. Babbly saw her feeding on snakes, frogs, rats, snails, insects and more, all during dawn and dusk in the wetland and agricultural area. Surprisingly, she saw Cat diving in the lake and catching fish, mostly in the dark, but sometimes during daylight hours as well. She found this behavior very unique.

The babbler family used to call almost all day, while searching for insects, grains, nectar and berries while Cat took naps in bushes. Babbly never liked Cat and tried to disturb her with lots of babbler chatter and calls, sometimes with her family. But the illusive fishing cat never minded the babbler noise, and always continued with her nap. Most of the time, when Babbly went to her nest for the night, Cat was getting up, to begin hunting for her dinner.

A few years passed and with time the wetland changed radically. The wetland and agricultural land always supported a variety of insects and grains for Babbly and birds like her, as well as the carnivorous diet of the fishing cat, both on land and in the water.  But humans started to change the land.  They harvested more fish and kept them in man-made pools for themselves. The human settlements diverted water to make the pools in the farmlands and as a result the water level in the wetland areas went down, damaging the plant life and reducing food for the animal life.  The beautiful forest became fragmented into small pieces; the humans cut trees and burned fires to clear the land.  Smoke filled the air as they introduced an excavator to dig in the land. The digging damaged the whole ecosystem and one day there appeared a large black path, that bisected the forest.  Babbly could not understand why there were always large machines moving through that black path with lots of irritating sound and smoke.

Now the wetlands are unrecognizable.  The development of the black path has brought many humans to the lake during the day and Babbly has noticed that Cat no longer visits the lake during daylight hours.  Before, many birds would visit during different seasons, but Babbly no longer sees those birds.  The area is quiet and empty, many animals have died of starvation and some migrated away due to the lack of food and shelter.  Babbly notices that Cat is covering large areas to find food, she comes back tired and irritated from her nightly hunts.  Before Cat tolerated Babby’s chatter but now she seems to hate it.  Babbly does not like Cat but she never really meant to disturb her with her songs.

Early one morning, Babbly sees Cat walking around. Looking at the tired fishing cat, she guessed Cat must have roamed the whole night in search of food and she looked as if she was not successful in her hunt.  Babbly knows what it is like to be without food and she feels very sad for Cat.

Despite of food shortage after a few weeks Cat appears chubby. Babbly can guess easily that Cat is expecting kittens.  Babbly’s curiosity grows and she starts to observe Cat more frequently from the tree. The fishing cat continues to face difficulties finding food close by, and she gets tired soon with the massively growing belly.

After few weeks Babbly saw that Cat’s belly is gone and appears tiny. The next evening Babbly pays a visit to Cat’s den from a distance when Cat leaves in search of dinner. Babbly sees three tiny kittens in the den. Every day, when Cat leaves to go hunting, Babbly visits the kittens. Slowly the kittens become playful and they notice Babbly coming to visit them. Babbly spends some time with kittens and gets back to her nest before Cat returns to the den of kittens.

Each time Cat returns to the den the kittens rush to nurse and get milk. After they drink, they immediately start playing with the prey brought by their mom.  This helps teach the kittens how to handle prey in future, when they are off on their own. Looking at these activities from the tree, Babbly feels pride watching the kittens grown and learn.  Soon she forgets their mother ate her eggs a few years ago.

One morning Babbly hears the unpleasant sound of kittens crying loudly. She slowly goes to the den to get a quick look. She cannot see Cat around and quickly Babbly realizes that Cat has not come home since leaving the den last evening. The kittens are thirsty and hungry. Babbly flies back to the top of the tree, looks around, but she cannot see Cat. She feels helpless, knowing she cannot feed those innocent kittens. She is in tears and flies away to search for what has happened to Cat.

In another part of the marsh, Babbly sees a mass gathering of humans on the black path.  She can see and hear the humans are talking but she cannot understand their words. As the humans move from the path, she sees something that she can understand.  Cat is laying on the black path, bleeding from her head with a fish at her side.

At that moment, Babbly imagines the kitten’s playing with that fish after nursing from their mother, a sight she will never see again.

(This story is dedicated to a female fishing cat that died in road accident in Bara district, central Terai of Nepal in February of 2020)

Mishra is a PhD Candidate, University of Antwerp, Belgium. 

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