Little African cats need big parks

African wildcat

The African wildcat looks similar to a domestic cat in size, shape and coloring, but it remains a genetically distinct species.

hyper7pro/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

As much as I love my own kitty, I have to admit that the domestic cat (Felis sylvestris catus) has become quite the menace around the world. The cat’s power to be a bird-killing machine often gets the most attention, but its ability to breed with wild members of its species also poses a big threat. In some places, such as Scotland, the local wildcat population has been largely replaced by genetically distinct hybrids. That’s also been a worry for African wildcats in places like South Africa.

Wildcats often look pretty similar to domestic tabby cats, though there are differences. African wildcats (Felis sylvestris lybica), for instance, have distinctive coat patterns, long legs and a reddish tint behind the ears. But those differences aren’t enough to determine whether the population has remained pure.

To establish whether South Africa’s wildcats are still free of domestic kitty DNA, Johannes J. Le Roux of Stellenbosch University in Matieland, South Africa, and colleagues looked into the genetics and geographic ranges of African wildcats, domestic cats and hybrids from across the country, concentrating on two protected areas — Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in the northwest and Kruger National Park in the northeast.

African wildcat
A cat’s desire to play with its food isn’t restricted to domestic species. This African wildcat in South Africa was caught tossing around a mouse.Daniele Colombo/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Outside the parks, near urban areas where the wildcat population overlapped with people and their pets, the researchers found several wildcats that had various levels of domestic DNA. Only in the protected areas were the wildcats sheltered enough from domestic kitties to remain genetically pure.

Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is an especially great place for African wildcats, the researchers note, because it’s big and isolated from humans — the closest human settlement is 10 kilometers from the park’s boundaries. Kruger National Park, in contrast, is long and narrow and lots of people live along its borders. There, “African wildcat populations might be less isolated and thus more susceptible to contact with feral domestic cats,” the researchers contend.

The scientists warn that other parks may be even worse for African wildcats. “Many of South Africa’s protected areas are found in close proximity to rapidly expanding urban areas and human settlements,” they note. “Not surprisingly, domestic cats have been recorded from 16 of South Africa’s National Parks’ 19 protected areas.” Hybridization is definitely a possibility within those 16 areas.

The key to protecting African wildcats, therefore, is keeping them away from human populations and the feral cats found there. So even though it might be possible to provide wildcats with the habitat and space they need through small parks connected by wildlife corridors, ultimately such plans wouldn’t work because the corridors would probably put the wildcats in closer contact with human settlements.

It appears that the small wildcats need large, isolated, protected areas to keep them away from their biggest threat — the Casanova kitties wandering over from the closest town.

Sarah Zielinski

Sarah Zielinski is managing editor of Science News for Students. She has a B.A. in biology from Cornell University and an M.A. in journalism from New York University. She writes about ecology, plants and animals.

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