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Cats: The Small Four

Cats: The Small Four

Jun 2014

Words Andrea Abbott, Pics Andrea Abbott, Mandy Jones, Beryl Wilson, Cat Conservation Trust

Supreme hunters but seldom seen, our Small Four wild cats deserve as much attention as their big cousins – the lions, leopards and cheetahs. Their lives are as fraught with danger.

A rangy tabby cat took over our household a while back. Initially wild and unapproachable, Nearly Ours (as we named him) changed his tune once he knew he could trust us. He moved in and established a commanding presence. Cat lovers were enchanted; detractors begrudgingly admired him, and many remarked on Nearly’s black soles, black ringed, black-tipped tail, and facial markings.

“He could be an African wild cat,” is still a common conclusion. And it’s not far-fetched. Similar in shape to the average domestic cat, the African wild cat, Felis silvestris lybica, is closely related to Felis catus – the posh name for our pet moggies. Being close kin and given half a chance to mingle, these wild cats and domestic (mostly feral) cats interbreed happily, the result – F. lybica could possibly pass for Nearly Ours.

As captivating as is their progeny, the two species are unsuitable bedfellows. “Hybridisation is the biggest threat to the African wild cat,” says cat researcher, Amanda Jones, whose work has included studies of feral cat populations at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. “Wild cats are widespread and occur in a variety of habitats throughout Africa, except for tropical forests and true deserts.

“Hybrids are common around human settlements and, increasingly, genetically pure wild cats occur only in remote areas.” This means a steady decline in numbers of this once common, solitary, little hunter of rodents and other small prey. As usual, it’s a man-made problem. “We don’t sterilise our cats,” says Mandy. (Author’s note: Nearly Ours was neutered the day after he moved in.)

The African wild cat is the second smallest of the four indigenous small wild cat species in South Africa. The tiniest, at less than two kilograms, is the African black-footed cat. The larger two are the serval and the caracal.

Long persecuted by farmers who consider it a threat to livestock, the tuft-eared, chunkily built caracal is traditionally at home in mountainous terrain but also favours open habitat. However, evidence points to the cat moving into forests.

“In the 1980s, a drought in the Eastern Cape caused caracal to come down the mountains and into the forests where, for the first time on record, they preyed on the rare blue duiker,” Mandy explains. This gave the already vilified red cat a worse reputation. Was it deserved? “It’s possible the drought caused a lot of duiker to die of starvation,” says Mandy. “At the same time, poaching began in the area. Leopards also occur in those forests.”

In recent years, caracals have been spotted in forests in KwaZulu-Natal. “There is no Zulu word for caracal,” Mandy says, “which suggests they did not previously occur in the region.” Her current research focuses on the distribution ranges of caracal and blue duiker in KwaZulu-Natal, the major objective to establish if and to what extent the cat is impacting on the tiny forest-dwelling antelope. “My feeling is that caracals are the least of the duiker’s worries,” says Mandy. “Poaching is a bigger problem. So is dense alien vegetation that makes it difficult for the diminutive antelope to reach for fruit in indigenous trees [they feed almost exclusively on wild fruit] or to flee from dogs.”

As for caracal preying on livestock, Mandy acknowledges this happens but points out that eradicating one caracal simply results in another one filling the gap. “So you might as well keep ‘your’ caracal.” This has extra benefits. A handbook issued by the Endangered Wildlife Trust to promote predator-friendly farming highlights the valuable role of caracals in keeping down populations of crop-munching dassies and rodents.

Who can tell why the caracal might be settling into new habitats? Whatever the reason, one thing is apparent: the Cleopatra-eyed rooikat is a resourceful character. The smaller and elegant serval, however, is less versatile, depending on wetlands and grasslands where it feeds mostly on rodents. “With wetlands being drained and grasslands ploughed up, habitat destruction is a major threat to servals,” says Mandy.

Sometimes mistaken as a leopard by those lucky enough to spot a wild serval, this long-legged, large-eared, slender cat is about a sixth of the weight of its much more powerful cousin. It poses no threat to humans and is easy prey for traders in the illegal exotic pet market. “Servals and caracals are often kept as pets overseas,” Mandy says. “The USA is the biggest market.”

Accused of taking livestock, the serval can honestly plead not guilty, except for the occasional chicken. But, like the caracal, it more than pays for its chicken takeaway by keeping rodent populations in check. In a cruel twist, though, rat poison is another threat to the serval, as it is for so many predators. “We should use only eco-safe pesticides,” Mandy says.

The 2004 South African Red Data List of Mammals lists the serval as near-threatened. The Endangered Wildlife Trust is currently updating the list. Let’s hope this special little creature hasn’t moved up a rung to Vulnerable, the status given the tiny black-footed cat on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List Species of 2012.

The rarest felid in Africa, and second smallest wild cat on earth after the vulnerable, rusty-spotted cat of India, the secretive but feisty black-footed cat is endemic to Southern Africa, where it inhabits arid grasslands of the Kalahari, Karoo deserts and parts of the South African Highveld. “Nationally, the conservation status of the species is currently under review and it may well be lifted two levels soon to Endangered,” says black-footed cat expert, Beryl Wilson, head of the zoology department at Kimberley’s MacGregor Museum.

Beryl lists a number of threats to this cat. These include competition and victimisation from larger predators; susceptibility to stress that manifests in a kidney-destroying disease; indirect persecution by poisoning; predator control and, the main culprit, a diminishing prey base (small rodents and birds) caused by overgrazing of the cat’s habitat.

You have to wonder if that’s why the little cat is increasingly being spotted in an entirely different territory – recently harvested or tilled, agricultural fields. “Unfortunately, less than one per cent of the distribution of this species falls in our formally protected areas, meaning that the preservation and conservation of this cat is entirely in the hands of private landowners,” says Beryl.

‘Conservation in the hands of private landowners’ is an increasingly heard phrase that some landowners are taking to heart. Like Richard and Marion Holmes, founders of the Cat Conservation Trust near Cradock in the Eastern Cape. “We formed the trust to raise awareness of the plight of the small wild cat species,” says Marion. “Working closely with Dr Mircea Pfleiderer of Karoo Cat Research, we breed them in captivity on our farm for release in suitable areas or to swop genes with selected breeders only.” Marion adds that their black-footed cat breeding programme is considered the current world leader.

Careful breeding to increase species population is best left to the experts. But there’s a lot more that landowners can do to help prevent the indigenous small cats and so many other species sliding into oblivion. Sterilising domestic cats, not using poisons, tolerating predators, protecting habitat and limiting the human footprint all boil down to restoring the dynamic balance and complex, complete food chain that once existed within ecosystems everywhere.

And while we’ll never manage to restore the ‘manufacturer’s settings’, as can be done with things like cellphones and computers, we can at least mitigate some of our big mistakes.

Source: Country Life

Country Life