by Barry Kent MacKay,
Senior Program Associate
Born Free USA's Canadian Representative
Barry is an artist, both with words and with paint. He has been associated with our organization for nearly three decades and is our go-to guy for any wildlife question. He knows his animals — especially birds — and the issues that affect them. His blogs will give you just the tip of his wildlife-knowledge iceberg, so be sure to stay and delve deeper into his Canadian Project articles. If you like wildlife and reading, Barry's your man. (And we're happy to have him as part of our team, too!)
Well known or not, we are losing our cat species worldwide.
Recently I blogged about the decline in wild dog species worldwide. A report by several leading conservation organizations, The Fading Call of the Wild, documented a horrific decline of 25 percent of wild dog species. Most are ones the general public is unaware of, although even common species face serious declines in parts of their ranges.
The same report states that a staggering 80 percent of all wild cat species are in decline. Regarding wild dogs, most folks probably haven’t heard of the species that are rarest. However, regarding the wild cats, both the best and the least known of species are in trouble. And as is true of the wild dogs, but perhaps more so, we are likely to have a skewed bias in North America, where the situation, while not laudable, is better for at least some of our wild cat populations than is true for their relatives in the rest of the world.
There are 37 species of wild cat. How many can you name? Don’t make the mistake of thinking Persians, calicos, American short-hairs, Manx, Siamese or any other breed, from Abyssinian to York chocolate, are separate species — they are all domesticated varieties descended from one species, thus are but a single species, and one that significantly outnumbers all wild cats combined.
In addition to the 37 full species of wild cat, there are 228 “taxa” (singular “taxon”), meaning identifiable subspecies within species. Evolution is ongoing and these subspecies are often distinctive, although they have not evolved far enough from common ancestry to be separated from other subspecies of the same species. For example, the first lions made known to science (which then became the “nominate” subspecies, against which all others could be compared), had a thick mane that extended down the belly. I use the past tense because that taxon is extinct. Further south the mane does not extend as far back on the body and those animals are a different subspecies. There are other differences, usually subtle. Where subspecies come together they freely hybridize.
In some instances deciding what is a species or a subspecies is tricky. Island populations often evolve along a different path from close relatives on the mainland, and oceans block the possibility of hybridization. Increasingly scientists depend on sophisticated genetic, molecular, behavioral and morphological analysis to determine what is a species, and that is how, recently, it was determined that the clouded leopards on the island of Borneo were a species distinct from those on the mainland (as was first thought when the Borneo animals were made known to science back in 1823). The mainland ones are called the Indochinese clouded leopard while the Borneo ones are called the Diard’s clouded leopard. Both are in decline and considered vulnerable.
The best-known wild cats are probably the ones we see most often in zoos — including lions, tigers and spotted leopards — all considered at least vulnerable, all in decline overall, and all with populations or subspecies (the spotted leopard has 24) that are either extinct, critically endangered or endangered. In the case of the tiger, three very distinctive subspecies — the amur, the South China and the Sumatran tiger — are critically endangered. The population of the species overall is in the low thousands. There are more shoppers in the average large mall on a Saturday afternoon than there are tigers left in the wild. It is surely in indictment against the ravages of our own species against the natural world that this magnificent animal, so feared as a predator but so admired in art, poetry and literature, is on its way to extinction. Caged zoo animals are impoverished substitutes that provide false assurances that the species is being saved, yet all efforts to save the tigers in the wild have so far failed to stop the slide toward oblivion. The demand for parts of dead tigers, especially for so-called traditional Oriental medicine, is simply too great; the habitat available to tigers too small and fragmented.
Another zoo favorite, the snow leopard, is also down to the last few thousand animals in the wild, scattered in a huge and fragmented range over much of the mountainous regions of central Asia.
Four subspecies of the well-known spotted leopard — popularly known as the Arabian, Amur, North African and Anatolian leopards — are classified as critically endangered while four more distinctive subspecies — the Caucasus, Sri Lankan, North Chinese and Javan leopards — are all listed as endangered. The species is still common in some regions, and persecuted most places where it occurs.
Another species familiar to zoo visitors is the jaguar, which once ranged from the southern United States, where it was entirely wiped out, to southern South America. It has been estimated that its original range has been cut in half and officially it is listed as “near threatened.” As with all large predators, it is condemned and killed for depredations on livestock, as its natural prey, including peccaries, large turtles and caimans, are also often in decline.
For years the U.S. government, supported by Canada, has fought to remove the bobcat, our most common wild cat, from Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES), where it was placed in 1975. One reason for that listing was that CITES has provided enough Appendix I protection (which prohibited legal international trade for “primarily commercial” purposes) for truly endangered cat species that demands of the fur industry shifted to bobcats, with the value of their pelts skyrocketing from about $10 each before the 1970s to up to $150 per pelt a decade later, when more than 86,000 bobcats were “harvested” in a single season in the United States. Of the 47 states where it occurs, three have listed it as “endangered” and one, Illinois, lists it as “threatened,” although that classification may soon be lifted. The Appendix II listing has worked reasonably well to stop the decline in the species, although at the local level there are reasons for concern, as is true of the related Canadian lynx, now completely extirpated from the provinces of Prince Edward Island and mainland Nova Scotia, endangered in New Brunswick, and missing or rare throughout the southern part of its range in southern Canada and the northern United States.
The Iberian lynx, found only in Spain and Portugal, may well be the most endangered of the world’s wild cats.
The seven subspecies of the closely related Eurasian lynx are distributed across northern Eurasia and in many regions knowledge of their status in the wild is impoverished, but we know they are subject to the same threats faced by other large cats.
The puma has an enormous range, from Alaska to the southern tip of South America, and is divided into about 30 subspecies, some with very restricted ranges. CITES lists three subspecies on Appendix I, meaning no international trade for primarily commercial purposes is allowed. One of those races is the famous “Florida panther,” while another is the “Eastern cougar,” whose continued existence is a matter of conjecture and debate. The third endangered subspecies occurs in Costa Rica. Degrees of protection for the species elsewhere range from full protection (including in several countries) to none at all in Texas. A subspecies from the U.S. Midwest is probably extinct.
The cheetah, last of the big cats familiar to most people, now has the bulk of its remaining distribution focused in East Africa and southern Africa. Hunting is allowed in some places, but in most of its former range it is rare, or gone.
So concludes just a brief summary of what are probably the best known of the wild cats. They are the ones native to North America or Europe and probably most often seen in zoos or wildlife films. Most folks probably have heard of a few other species, such as the ocelot or the wildcat (thought to be the origin of the domestic cat).
But what of something like the marbled cat? Most people have never heard of it and almost nothing is known about its status in the wild, except that it is rare.
What of the bay cat, Asian golden cat, African golden cat, Caracal, Margay, Colocolo, the Andean Mountain cat, Oncilla, Kodkod, Geoffroy’s Cat, Jaguarundi, Pallas’s Cat, Rusty-spotted Cat, Flat-headed Cat, Fishing Cat, Leopard Cat, Black-footed Cat, Sand Cat, or the Chinese Mountain Cat? Words like “kodkod” or “oncilla” or “colocolo” drew blanks when tested on my animal-friendly friends, and were rejected by the Spellcheck on my computer, but these are true, full species no less than the Lion or the Tiger and they and the others mentioned all have at least parts of their populations at risk of endangerment or extinction, or are gone.
It has been estimated that 30,000 wild species of fauna and flora go extinct each year! We are familiar with a fraction of one percent of them. Even with groups of large animals as familiar as the wild dogs and cats, we really have very close to no idea of what they are or what we are doing to them, but we’re doing it. Millions of choices made by all of us, from how we vote for to how long we leave the lights on to where we live to our choice in clothing, food, vacation or anything else has its direct or indirect and usually unintended or unconsidered consequences for the biosphere overall, thus for biodiversity. If we can’t save big, familiar animals it bodes ill for the vast majority of nearly or quite unknown species.
At the very least we should continue to do what we can to protect what we have, to fight the forces of indifference, cruelty, greed and appalling ignorance of the natural world, that so negatively impact upon our fellow beings of other species. We are the one large species whose population grows amok, whose appetite increases, and we are the one species whose behaviour we need to control, if we have any hope for there to be much left for future generations, both of our fellow species on this finite world, and our own.
You can help! If you’ve not already done so, please click here and send your legislator a letter asking him to support, or co-sponsor this legislation: H.R. 411 Great Cats and Rare Canids Act of 2009, or better yet—call his/her office and let them know how critical this legislation is to the survival of these species.