19 Unseen Wildcats: Impressive Small Cats

Of the world’s 38 wildcat species, 31 are considered small cats. Small cats are amazing, high-performance predators that don’t attract so much attention because they live in the long shadow cast by their larger cousins. Luckily, measures are being taken to protect small cats all around the globe.


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Exemplary predators, some small wildcats can take down larger prey. The caracal of Asia and Africa is less than two feet tall but has been filmed leaping over nine-foot fences to prey on sheep. Small Cats live in five of the world’s seven continents (excluding Australia and Antarctica) and are incredibly well adapted to an array of natural environments, from deserts to rain forests to city parks. Unfortunately, these lesser members of the family Felidae also live in the long shadow cast by their larger cousins, the big cats: lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars, and their kin. These celebrity species attract all of the attention and conservation dollars, even though 12 of the world’s 18 most threatened wild felidae are small cats.


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Jim Sanderson, a small-cat expert and program manager at the Texas-based Global Wildlife Conservation, estimates that more than 99 percent of funds spent on wild felidae since 2009 have gone to help jaguars, tigers, and other large cats. This results in many small cats being vastly understudied or not studied at all. The rarely seen bay cat, for example, is native only to the forests of Borneo and remains a mystery to science since 1858, the year of its discovery. All that’s known of Southeast Asia’s marbled cat comes from a study of a single female in Thailand. “We have no idea what it eats,” Sanderson says.


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The Iberian lynx, one of the world’s rarest cats, is slowly increasing in number as scientists release captive-raised cats and boost populations of rabbits, the lynx’s staple food. Luckily for the scientists, lynx breed well in captivity, and 176 have been reintroduced into carefully selected habitats since 2010. Four breeding centers and one zoo raised most of the cats, all of which were outfitted with tracking collars. Sixty percent of the reintroduced lynx have survived, and a few have surpassed expectations.


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Small cats suffer another disadvantage: people tend to view them as simply wild versions of their own pets. The domestic cat, considered a subspecies of the wildcat, evolved from wildcats about 10,000 years ago. The public isn’t as “stunned” by small cats as by more exotic cats, says Alexander Sliwa, a curator at Germany’s Cologne Zoo. 
“This perpetuates the situation that little is known about smaller cats, and if you can’t tell people about a cat’s biology or lifestyle, then people are not hooked.”


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But people should be impressed. Small cats are lean feats of evolution, high-performance predators that hit their stride millions of years ago and have changed little ever since. What they lack in size, they make up for in spirit. The black-footed cat, for example, is the smallest cat in Africa, it weighs less than five pounds. But it’s nicknamed the anthill tiger because it lives in abandoned termite mounds and fights tooth and claw if threatened


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Small wildcats have adopted very smart ways to coexist. In Suriname, Sanderson and his colleagues photographed five cat species living in the same rain forest: jaguar, puma, ocelot, margay, and jaguarundi. They do this by “dividing space and time,” he says. Each animal has its function, whether hunting on the ground during the day, like the jaguarundi, or hunting in the trees at night, like the margay.


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Small cats pose no threat to humans, though some small cats are capable of killing goats and sheep. On the contrary, as predators often at the top of their food chain, they help keep ecosystems running smoothly and prey populations in check


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What is devastating for the flat-headed cat and the fishing cat is that much of Southeast Asia’s forestland has been developed or turned into sprawling plantations for palm oil. Both animals rely on lowland wetlands for the fish they eat.


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Another threat facing small cats is the illegal wildlife trade, particularly poaching for skins, furs, and other animal parts, Roudel says. Such criminal activities are very common in China. In large cities merchants sell clothing and gloves made from the skins of small cats. In the 1980s China exported the skins of hundreds of thousands of leopard cats, a species that ranges throughout Asia. Though demand for skins has dropped considerably, leopard cats in China are still hunted and killed for preying on domestic animals.


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Alexander Sliwa, the Cologne Zoo curator, explains that small cats are very different from house cats, particularly because they’re always on the move. The black-footed cat, for instance, can walk nearly 20 miles and eat one-fifth of its body weight in food every night. Unlike Fluffy on the couch, “it cannot afford to lie around.”


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Conservationists can’t afford to lie around either. They begun to lift some species out of obscurity in hopes of saving them. In 2016 they launched an international effort to study and save Central Asia’s Pallas’s cat, a species in decline but largely hidden in the shadow of the famous snow leopard.


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“A lot of our work is putting the Pallas’ cat on the map,” says David Barclay, coordinator of the European Endangered Species Programme for the Pallas’ Cat. The feline has become a hit online because of its grumpy expression and its odd manner of scuttling about its mountainous home.

Though people are “laughing their way through the videos,” Barclay says, “they’re becoming subconsciously aware.”


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Luckily, there are some successful projects going on. A long-term conservation program in Japan has stabilized the population of the Iriomote cat, a critically endangered subspecies of the leopard cat that lives only on Iriomote Island. And in Spain’s Sierra de Andújar Natural Park, near where Helena and her fellow lynx live, ecotourism involving lynx-watching has sprung up in recent years alongside rabbit and deer hunting, traditional mainstays of southern Spain.


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“We are business partners,” Luis Ramón Barrios Cáceres, owner of the Los Pinos resort, says of the lynx, laughing. “They pay the bills.” Lynx-watching tour groups often base their operations at the country hotel.


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On the nearby San Fernando Ranch, Pedro López Fernández, whose family has ranched in the region for four generations, allows both rabbit hunters (when rabbit numbers are plentiful) and lynx on his nearly 700-acre property. López is clearly proud of his land, where cows wander hilly forests of holm oak and cork, accented with blooms of pink oleander.


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Not all landowners agree that the cats should be protected. Some are wary of government interference and don’t want lynx on their land. But López believes that the lynx is part of Spain’s heritage and the country should make sure it thrives.

The lynx is “one of the most valuable species, because it only comes from here,” López mentioned.


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At La Olivilla Breeding Center in Santa Elena, scientists are working around the clock. The animals—a mix of breeding females, cubs, and juveniles being readied for reintroduction—are mostly kept indoors.


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The center’s veterinarian, María José Pérez, explains the diligent process to prepare young lynx for release into the wild. They have to surround their enclosures with black barriers so they don’t see people, feed them rabbits through vegetation-covered tubes, and scare them with horns so they learn to fear cars.

“I feel privileged to contribute to the lynx not going extinct,” Pérez says.


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At his desk, keeper Antonio Esteban clicks over to a video feed of a mother lynx and her four cubs. Someday these animals will be reintroduced to the wild, this will prove crucial to the survival of their species. But for now they’re doing what they do best: taking a catnap.