The population trend for wildcats in general is downwards. That applies to the African wildcat – the wild ancestor to the domestic cat and an important species for that reason. Incidentally, there are two subspecies of African wildcat: the African wildcat, F. s. lybica, or North African wildcat and the southern African wildcat, F.s. cafra. Scientists are not sure where the distribution of one meets the other (as at 2014).
Although the population is decreasing, the IUCN Red List assessment in terms of survivability and potential extinction in the wild has not altered for the past 12 years:
- 2014 – Least Concern
- 2010 – Least Concern
- 2008 – Least Concern
- 2002 – Least Concern
An interesting and almost bizarre aspect of African wildcat conservation is that, as at 2014, it appears that experts are yet to decide if the domestic cat (your housecat and companion) is a separate species from the wildcat or a subspecies of wildcat.
My understanding of this is that if the domestic cat is regarded as a subspecies of wildcat (albeit domesticated) then that impacts on the conservation status of the wildcat in general and the African wildcat in particular because there are an estimated 400m domestic cats on the planet. If they are all subspecies of wildcat there cannot be any conservation concerns!
However, if the domestic cat is a separate species, the assessment of conservation status of the African wildcat becomes more urgent.
Another factor which greatly confounds the assessment of the conservation status of this small wildcat is that hybridization with the domestic cat is wildspread. The IUCN Red List (the premier organisation on conservation status) states that there may be only a few genetically pure populations of wildcat on the planet at 2014 (references: Macdonald et al. 2004, Nowell and Jackson 1996, Phelan and Sliwa 2006, Driscoll et al. 2007).
The mass hybridization must surely make the classification of the subspecies of this wild cat species almost impossible which in turn dramatically affects and assessment of conservation status.
Other threats to the African wildcat are:
- disease transmission between domestic cats and wildcat
- competition for prey from domestic and feral cats
- people killing wildcats in southern Africa
The African wildcat is included under CITES II. CITES II is less urgent in terms of conservation than CITES I. CITES stands for: Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. It is a treaty or international agreement. CITES II means:
“species that are not “necessarily now threatened with extinction” but careful control of trade is required to prevent the species being listed in appendix I.” (Michael from CITES in relation to cats)
Essentially what CITES does is to protect species from being abused by businesses in trading the animals or parts of animals. It is meant to provide some protection in this way. However, it is no more than an agreement between countries who have signed up to it and it is not enforced (unenforceable). The efficacy of CITES depends on the commitment and goodwill of the signatories. Some of them cannot be trusted, sadly. However, the wildcat appears to not be considered as an asset to be “harvested” by businesses, which helps in its conservation.
The key statistics are (a) there is a population decline and (b) no attempt to arrest hybridization with domestic and feral cats. It could be argued that it is too late to stop hybridization in any case and if hybridisation is widespread as stated what are we conserving?
The future of purebred African wildcats appears to have consigned to the evolutionary dustbin.
What is being done to conserve this species? My reading of the situation is: nothing in particular if at all. As stated the biggest issue by far is hybridization and that seems to have got out of hand, gone too far to arrest.