We simply do not know how many wild cats are left in the world. I’m referring to all the individual wild cats of all species of which there are between 36-38 depending on your point of view. The opening statement might sound defeatist, negative and simply incorrect but it isn’t. Nobody is counting because the experts and conservationists don’t have the resources to count all the world’s wild cats from the diminutive rusty-spotted cat to the world’s biggest cat, the tiger.
And the title doesn’t distinguish between wild cats living in captivity and those living in the wild. Therefore, we have to add up all the individual wild cats of any species whether they are living in the wild or in captivity to answer the question in the title. This is impossible to do accurately.
Certainly, in America I don’t think we have a firm and accurate count of the number of individual wild cats of any species in captivity. I do know that there are thousands of tigers, for instance, where they are often abused, incidentally. Arguably all captive wild cats are abused by nature of their captivity, deprived of the space they require.
But if we turn our minds to the true wild cats living in the wild, we can take one example which is Felis sylvestris, the Wildcat. This is a species of wild cat incidentally, which is a bit confusing. The IUCN Red List tries to work out the world population size of Felis sylvestris and before long, when reading their literature, I realise that they simply can’t do it. They can’t quote numbers. For instance, they say that in Macedonia the species is “widespread”. And in Bulgaria “there are no quantitative data, but the species is considered relatively abundant”. And in European Russia they state “the population size and trend have not been quantified, but there are thought to be large, relatively stable populations”. These statements refer to 2007 which is now 14 years old. Therefore, we have an assessment which is 14 years old and which is so vague as to be almost useless in terms of assessing numbers.
And here’s the deal: the purpose of the IUCN Red List is to assess the survivability of the world’s species and you can only do that if you know the population size. As this organisation does not meet that requirement, they cannot accurately assess the status of wild cats in terms of whether they are going extinct or their population is stable and therefore they are not under threat of extinction. It’s that bad to be honest.
Also, in relation to the Wildcat, many of them are no longer purebred. It is believed by some that all of Scotland’s Wildcats are hybrids. They are products of matings between stray domestic cats and purebred Scottish Wildcats. We can’t count these in in my view and in any event, it creates a complication if you want to work out how many wild cats are left in the world.
Selecting at random, I will look at another small wild cat species, the Andean Cat, Leopardus jacobita. This is a really cute, quite diminutive wild cat species with looks quite like a domestic tabby cat and they are quite friendly to their detriment because they are relatively easily killed by the local people who like to use their skins for cultural reasons.
The IUCN Red List is unable to provide us with an estimate of their population size. Their entire analysis refers to the density of individual Andean cats within certain regions of their distribution such as in northern Chile. For example, they say that in north-western Argentina they believe that there are 7-12 Andean cats per every 100 km². These studies relate to 2011 which is now 10 years out-of-date. They say that the current population trend is decreasing.
I don’t really need to go on but what about the iconic Bengal tiger? Well, we know that there are about 3,500 in the wild in India and the Sundarbans in Bangladesh. But the counting of tigers is difficult. Conservationists have tried various methods (camera traps and scats) but my interpretation of what they say about counting tigers indicates to me that it is not very precise. Occasionally we get adjustments from conservationists working for the Indian government. The most recent adjustment was upwards perhaps for political reasons.
A quick search on the Internet tells me that there are 2,000 Bengal tigers or fewer left in the wild. That’s according to one website and yet another website which ranks high in Google search result tells me that there are an estimated 3,900 tigers in the wild. Of course, that includes all species of tiger. Another website says that the tiger population has dwindled to around 4,000. The Bengal tiger is by far the most populous. There are precious few Siberian tigers left (about 500 in eastern Russia and some albeit very few in northern China).
The picture is muddied by a lack of precision in acquiring data. That’s why it would be foolhardy to say in this article that we know the number of wild cats on the planet at 2021. And to provide a wild estimate, I think, would be unhelpful.
One thing is sure, the numbers are decreasing across the board. And therefore, when conservationists refer to assessments made over 10 years ago it seems to me to be rather pointless because these numbers, where they do provide them, would be seriously out of date in 2021. This lack of data on wild cat numbers seriously undermines their conservation. I have a great sense that the world has given up on wild cat conservation.
I just read today that currently one fifth of the world’s population is African but by the end of the century nearly half of the world will reside in Africa. Africa is a country, even today, teaming with wildlife including many species of wild cat. You can imagine that their future is dim. They will be squeezed of the continent by a burgeoning human population. There will be no space for them.
Indeed, it is projected that the current world population of humans of 7.8 billion will top out at around 10 billion in 2064. Then it is hoped that as the world becomes richer women will exercise their choice to have children and reject it. Then the population will decline. By then I would expect the world population size of cats to be substantially diminished from today and that includes the iconic species. I would expect about one quarter of the population size of lions and tigers if that at the end of this millennium.