European wildcat - photo by Joachim S. Müller (Flickr)
Here are some bulleted notes on the threats and conservation of the wild cat species known as the "wildcat". This is a small wildcat that looks like a domestic cat and which is the wildcat ancestor of the domestic cat. Please note that I am not referring to wildcats in general but this particular species.
- at one time (18th to mid-20th centuries) habitat loss had a profound effect on the wildcat. The wildcat has adapted to live in "cultivated landscapes" but this can lead to hybridization (see below).
- the wildcat has for centuries been thought of as "vermin"2. Apparently it is still considered a pest in Scotland1. I am surprised to hear this as it should be a national treasure.
- Road kill is also a threat.
- all manner of human persecution has been perpetrated upon the humble wildcat. This is odd as many millions of people love their domestic cats, the tabby cat being very similar to the wildcat.
- gamekeepers have sought to exterminate them as it was believed that they interfere with game shooting (pheasants etc.). This is one form of violence perpetrated to protect another form of violence.
- Poisoning programs against other animals (e.g. pikas, voles and moles) in say China and Europe resulted in the wildcat being poisoned as well.
- Asiatic wildcats have in the past been trapped and killed for the fur trade. This seems to have somewhat died out. Although Chinese Mountain Cat skins have been encountered.
- the wildcat interbreeds with the domestic cat. This is a hidden or silent form of self extermination although the cat doesn't see it that way. Interbreeding with domestic cats gradually dilutes the original genotype of the wildcat making it genetically impure. It is possible to say that the Scottish wildcat is both alive and extinct. The IUCN Red List® says that hybridization is the primary threat for the wildcat's survival in the wild. There "may be very few genetically pure populations of Wildcats remaining" (IUCN Red List®)
- disease transmitted from domestic cat to wildcat is also a threat. There is a "high potential for disease transmission" (IUCN Red List®).
- there have been efforts to reintroduce the wildcat in Europe without real success. The survival rates were low at 30%.
- preferred conservation now leans towards protecting existing populations, a typical example of which is the TNR program of feral cats in Scotland to prevent hybridization. See for example: Effective trap, neuter return programs. One difficulty with preventing hybridization thorugh TNR programs is in distinguishing between pure wildcat from hybrid.
- The wildcat is listed on appendix II of CITES (CITES in relation to cats). This means that the species is protected in countries who are signed up to the treaty. There is real doubt as to whether CITES actually achieves much because it is hard to enforce and vested commercial interests spoil its purpose. In theory, at least, the wildcat is fully protected across its range in Europe and Asia and partially in Africa. Appendix II lists species that are not necessarily now threatened with extinction but that may become so unless trade is closely controlled.
- The IUCN classifies it as Least Concern (see icon below) as it is "the most common and widely distributed wild cat". Hybridization that I refer to above may force a re-think. Personally, I see a conflict between the IUCN's assessment of "least concern" and their description of one of the threats as: there "may be very few genetically pure populations of Wildcats remaining" (IUCN Red List®).
1. IUCN Red List®
2. Wild Cats Of The World by Mel and Fiona Sunquist page 88.