I find myself more at ease around animals rather than people and, generally, I’m very much drawn towards wild animals. Animals are quite direct—when they don’t want to be disturbed, they show it with their behaviour. However, when it comes to people you don’t know what they’re thinking and that makes me anxious.
But the reason I work specifically with fishing cats goes beyond my love for wild animals. One time when I was working on a proposal on leopard conservation, a colleague asked me if I wanted to see an orphaned fishing cat she was looking after on behalf of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC). Being the procrastinator I am, I agreed to go with her without knowing anything about fishing cats. When I got there, I caught the gleam of a pair of yellow eyes looking at me from underneath my colleague’s guest room bed. This strange animal, the size of a street dog, walked towards me, a sock hanging from its mouth. I spent 3 hours in its company. Later that day, I looked up the fishing cat and I was shook when I found out there are 41 species of wild cat, 7 of them being big cats and the rest of them small cats. What startled me the most was realising I knew a lot about the big cats and nothing about the latter. Shortly after, I spoke to my uncle—who also works in the wildlife sector—and he disclosed details about a project he started on fishing cats in Colombo but ceased operations on because of the war. It was like a light bulb switched on and I decided to revive the initiative in Sri Lanka, by starting the Urban Fishing Cat Conservation Project.
When I started off, we found out fishing cats were not only present in the wetlands, but also in the suburbs and middle of the city. Right now, we’re trying to study how these animals are coexisting with humans and how we can coexist with them. But, working on this project hasn’t been a walk in the park thanks to an extremely male-dominated industry. Being a young woman, it was hard for me to even walk into meetings full of men. Luckily, it got easier as I’m a stubborn person and I don’t take anything personally. And most importantly, I’ve learnt how to laugh it off. Every time, someone one tries to shut me off at a meeting, I’d want a go at them! Instead of reciprocating their behaviour, I ask them questions to try and bring them to the point. Another hurdle is the lack of websites or other online platforms to learn about a project and connect with people. So I had to navigate the whole thing on my own and have my voice heard. Aside from these, I work on nurturing my work relationships—I get to know everyone from the bottom up. At the DWC, I know the blue collar staff with the security to cleaning staff to senior officials. I don’t want them to look at me as a Colombo girl who tells them how to do the job; I want them to see me as someone working with them towards a common goal.
One of the major milestones for this project is that we are we were the first in the world to GPS tag and track fishing cats. We are also the first in the country to GPS tag female fishing cats and the data we’re getting now is mind-blowing! I have scientists from around the world amazed at how these animals find a way to live in the middle of the city even during rush hour. The insights we get from this is great for city planning and to find out what conditions compel this species to survive. Right now, I’m trying to help other young aspiring women get into this field by allowing them to volunteer on the project since it’s not easy for women to work on bigger animals. In the very long term, the goal is to protect the urban wetlands for both humans and urban wildlife. These urban wetlands are often cleared for urban development, and as a result the surrounding areas are one of the first few places to get flooded during heavy rain. I also want to make the fishing cats the animal ambassador of Colombo, much like the leopards of Yala. So lots to do, but I’m very excited!
Photography by Amitha Thennakoon. Art & Direction by Ricky De Silva. Videography by StoryWorks.