Sunday 13 September 2020

Wildcat facts in brief

The African wildcat should probably be referred to as the African-Asian wildcat because they are part of the same species. I don't want to confine myself to the African wildcat. This wildcat which is the size of a domestic cat is most distinguished for the fact that the Near Eastern subspecies a.k.a. North African wildcat is the wild ancestor of the domestic cat. They still look very similar. The African wildcat looks a bit like a diluted tabby cat. In fact there are many hybrids in Africa, the product of matings between purebred African wildcats and domestic cats. You could hardly tell the difference. The same hybridisation has taken place in Scotland where you might argue there are a few left who are genuine wildcats. Unfortunately the Scottish species of this small wildcat has almost been wiped out or perhaps has been wiped out by hybridisation with domestic and feral cats.

Southern African wildcat
This is said to be an African wildcat from the south of the continent. Photo by hyper7pro on Flickr.

The domestication of the African wildcat took place perhaps about 10,000 years ago and it still takes place today in Africa. It is an extraordinary story. In terms of the way they look if I was more accurate I would say they are a little bit larger than domestic cats and a bit more leggy i.e. the legs are a bit longer and the cat is a bit thinner and rangier than the domestic cat. 

They are nocturnal rodent-hunters and they inhabit a very wide range, all the way across large parts of Africa, avoiding the Sahara mainly, through to the Middle East and over to China. They are also present in parts of Europe (European wildcat) and as mentioned in Scotland (possibly). They're said to be in Turkey and in India. The full list of countries is to large to set out here but also includes Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Lebanon, Kazakhstan and Herzegovina.

Distribution of the wild cat 2020. IUCN Red List

If you want to know how the African wildcat behaves and lives you only have to look at the domestic cat. Our friendly, beautiful domestic cats inherited all those wonderful wild traits of the wildcat. The primary prey is small mammals such as mice and voles and sometimes birds, reptiles and insects. They mainly hunt on the ground but they climb trees beautifully and like vertical spaces. They drink very little water and our great survivors. We know their vocal repertoire because you just have to listen to your domestic cat to find out.

African wildcat
African and Scottish wildcat.

The population is decreasing which is unsurprising and their habitat type is said to be forest, savanna, scrubland, grassland and desert. You can see the general trend is towards a dry, arid habitat which is why the domestic cat is such a good non-drinker.

In Scotland, as mentioned, the Scottish wildcat is pretty well extinct and the threats to its existence across those large swathes of their distribution include hunting and trapping, as mentioned hybridisation by domestic cats, competition with feral cats for prey animals and human caused mortality through road kills. It is considered a pest in Scotland still which seems remarkable to me (is this true? Surely not bearing in mind the threat of extinction). Snaring and lamping in Scotland can sometimes kill them and habitat loss has led to declines in their population in Europe and in Russia in the 18th to mid-20th centuries.

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