Scottish Wildcat in captivity - Is it a true wildcat or a hybrid? Photo: by Daves Portfolio (Flickr)
The title might sound contradictory but it certainly isn't. I am prompted to make this short post to remind us of the bizarre fact that a wildcat species can be alive and extinct at the same time on reading a news item about the Scottish Wildcat.
The news story quotes a Iain Valentine, director of animals, conservation and education at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland in Edinburgh. He says that we should collect and store cells from Scottish Wildcats now and store them for future use. I presume he means DNA from cells so that the cat can be cloned in the future. I might be wrong.
The reason he proposes this almost desperate last gasp measure is because the Scottish Wildcat has interbred with domestic cats in Scotland and the genetic profile of many current Scottish Wildcats (at August 2010) is not the same as the original wildcat. The genes have been diluted with domestic cat genes and the wild cat is a hybrid.
It could be argued that we don't know if there are any Scottish Wildcats left that are the same as the "original" species because we don't have a proper DNA profile of the ancient and "true" unadulterated Scottish Wildcat.
If that is true then we would be cloning a hybrid in a thousand years time - a pointless task.
The point is a wildcat can exist in the wild but be so different genetically to the "true" genotype of the ancient wildcat that it could be argued that it is extinct.
Not only is it possible for a wildcat species to be alive and extinct at the same time it is possible for a wildcat species to be living in the wild and be inbred to the point where extinction is possibly inevitable. Certainly in captivity in some locations tigers are so inbred as to make the whole program unworkable.
There are tigers in captivity, so called Bengal tigers or Siberian tigers that are not strictly these species of wildcat because they are hybrids. It is probable that the hybridization took place deliberately to prevent inbreeding to an unacceptable level. Inbred cats can become sterile due to poor sperm quality so cannot perpetuate the species. Also inbreed cats such as the cheetah are susceptible to being harmed en masse by viruses further jeopardizing survival in the longterm.
One last point, back to the idea of collecting DNA now for future use to save wildcats from extinction. Even on the basis that cloning works and the jury is still out on that, if we are able to create wildcats such as the Scottish Wildcat in the future, we have to have somewhere to put them and we have to deal with the underlying problems that cause extinction in the first place. It is unlikely that we can do this.
Certainly in regions where human population growth and economic growth is the only model for human existence there will simply be no space or habitat that a large wildcat can call home in the future. That, in fact, is the case at present in places such as the Sunderbans in Bangladesh and north east India. It is probably the case in the Indian Bengal tiger reserves too. They are too small and there is constant pressure to erode the tiger habitat for the sake of "progress" which is translated to economic progress not quality of life progress or a progress that seeks a human life that is harmonised with fellow creatures.
The answer to wildcat species preservation is a change in the culture of commerce over life quality supported by grassroots education. We cannot change the world economic model of growth as it is too deeply ingrained into our psyche. Accordingly, I am deeply pessimistic about wildcat species survival despite the sterling work of people such as Jim Sanderson PhD.