Ashwin Naidu
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(Imitates fishing cat)

That's my impersonation of a fishing cat, which actually sounds more like this.

(Prerecorded fishing cat sounds)

It's a cat that loves water, loves to fish, and lives in some of the most unique and valuable ecosystems on earth: the wetlands and mangrove forests of South and Southeast Asia. Aren't they fishing awesome?

(Laughter)

Fishing cats are one of about 40 species of wildcats. Like tigers and lions, only much smaller. They're probably around twice the size of our average domestic cat. In Indonesia, people call them "kucing bakau," which literally translates to "the cat of the mangroves." But I like to call them the tigers of the mangroves.

Now, we don't know fishing cats as well as we do tigers, but what we've learned is that these cats can be a flagship species to a globally important ecosystem, and a visual bait attached to a strong line for conservation. Are you hooked yet?

(Laughter)

Like many endangered species, fishing cats are threatened by habitat loss, mainly because of our international demand for farmed fish and shrimp, and the deforestation of nearly half the historic mangrove cover in South and Southeast Asia. Mangroves, on the other hand, are much more than just habitat to the fishing cat. They are home to a fantastic array of species, like jackals, turtles, shorebirds and otters.

(Laughter)

Mangroves also prevent soil erosion, and they can be the first line of defense between storm surges, tsunamis and the millions of people who live next to these forests for their day-to-day survival. The fact that puts the icing on the cake — or the earth, I should say — is that mangroves can store upwards of five to ten times more carbon dioxide than tropical forests. So protecting one acre of mangroves may well be like protecting five or more acres of tropical forests. Would you like to eliminate you entire life's carbon footprint? Well, mangroves can offer you one of the best bangs for your conservation buck.

Deforestation, extinction and climate change are all global problems that we can solve by giving value to our species and ecosystems and by working together with the local people who live next to them. This is one of three river deltas in coastal South India where communities came together to change the face and potentially, the fate of this planet. In less than a decade, with international support, the state forest departments and the local communities worked together to restore over 20,000 acres of unproductive fish and shrimp farms back into mangroves. About five years ago, guess who we discovered in these restored mangroves?

When we shared images of these fishing cats with local people, we were able to build pride among them about a globally revered endangered species and ecosystem in their backyards. We were also able to build trust with some people to help them lead alternative livelihoods.

Meet Santosh, a 19-year-old boy who not only became a conservation professional after working with us for just over a year but also went on to involve many local fishermen in helping study and protect fishing cats.

Meet Moshi, a tribal poacher, who not only stopped hunting and became our most prized conservationist, but also used his traditional knowledge to educate his entire community to stop hunting fishing cats, otters and the many other threatened species that live in the mangroves in his backyard.

Fish and shrimp farmers, like Venkat, are now willing to work with us conservationists to test the sustainable harvest of ecosystem services like crabs, and possibly even honey, from mangroves. Incentives that could get them to protect and plant mangroves where they have been lost. A win-win-win for fishing cats, local people and the global community.

These stories show us that we can all be part of a future where fishing cats and the lost mangrove forests are protected and restored by fishermen themselves, creating carbon sinks that can help offset our ecological footprints.

So while the fishing cat may be small, I hope that we've been able to help make it a big deal. One that we can all invest in to help sustain our lives on earth a little longer. Or as our friend here would say ...

(Prerecorded fishing cat sounds)

Thank you.

(Applause)