© Emmanuel Keller, courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing.
Perhaps the most popular pet on Earth, the family cat is a beloved member of countless households. Millions of others abandoned or strayed are flourishing independently outdoors, where they may pose serious threats to birds and other small animals. But as familiar as the house cat is, not many people know it has 38 truly wild relatives, distinct species that include not only the iconic “king of the jungle,” the lion, and the world’s largest cat, the tiger, but also obscure felids like the flat-headed cat, fishing cat, and oncilla. Wild cats mostly live in exotic places most of us will never visit, but several species survive, often covertly, within or around villages and cities in many parts of the world (Famous Cougar That Was Holed Up Under L.A House Returns to the Wild).
Cat enthusiasts — and anyone who appreciates wildlife and the wonders of evolution — will be enchanted by a comprehensive new book that shares the secrets of the felids. Written by President and Chief Conservation Officer of Panthera, Luke Hunter, Wild Cats of the World profiles all 38 known species, illustrated with 400 photographs of the astonishing variety and beauty of this ancient and widespread family of carnivores.
Hunter, a committee member of the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative, published the book to illuminate and teach everyone of all ages about the diversity of the cats and explain the importance of their conservation, and how saving them can be beneficial to us.
Felids live in virtually any habitat, from desert to the subarctic, Hunter said in an email interview with Cat Watch. They have been around for about 30 million years and have out-lived many other branches in carnivore evolution which died out in their wake.
So what makes cats such successful species?
“The cat is the ultimate solo hunter.”
LH: Their success is due, in part, to their extremely efficient body design. The cat is the ultimate solo hunter, with acute senses, hair-trigger reflexes, explosive muscular strength and a supple skeleton. Protractile claws and elastic wrists give tremendous control for grasping and handling large prey, while truncated, powerful jaws deliver a precise killing bite. Social carnivores like canids and hyaenas have more robust, less flexible bodies built for stamina to tire prey over long distances but which lack the cat’s solitary killing prowess. All of which means, for example, that a lone puma is able to take down an adult elk but it takes a few wolves to do likewise.”
© Nick Garbutt, courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing.
Yet the future of wild cats is in doubt almost everywhere. What are some of the greatest threats and where might cats have the best chance of survival?
LH: Sadly, all the reasons that cats are declining arise from people, especially the conversion of wild habitats into farmland, pasture and cities, and the loss of their prey species. Aside from these ‘indirect threats’, cats are specifically targeted by people for a variety of reasons. Many species are killed by herders and farmers around the world, fearing for their livestock; the recent poisoning of lions in Kenya’s famous Maasai Mara Reserve by Masai herders is, unfortunately repeated every day somewhere in the world.
“All the reasons that cats are declining arise from people.”
Finally, cats are illegally killed–poached–for their fur and body parts. The demand driven by traditional Asian medicinal beliefs for tiger body parts (which have as much medicinal value as consuming a cow) is now so intense that tigers are hunted inside protected reserves across their range. Increasingly, other large cat species–lions, leopards and even jaguars–are being killed for the same trade.
© Barry Rowan, courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing.
Of all the cats, which ones are the most obscure, the least known, and therefore most surprising?
LH: Many smaller cat species have never been the focus of an in-depth field study, and a number are yet to have even a single individual fitted with a radio-collar–one of the standard, most useful tools of wildlife research–among them the bay cat, Chinese mountain cat and flat-headed Cat.
Fortunately, I am starting to see more interest in the small cats. The Mohammed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund does a marvelous job of supporting work on small felids, and a board trustee of Panthera, Bob Quartermain, helped establish the Small Cat Action Fund. As a result of these efforts, we have been able to begin the first comprehensive studies on some very little-known species including two long-term studies on the African golden cat, as well as help local conservationists launch new projects to reduce threats to endangered species such as the fishing cat and the Sunda clouded leopard.
© Sebastian Kennerknect, courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing.
Do you have a favorite species of wild cat?
LH: If I had to pick a favorite, it would probably be the Lion. It is such a formidable animal, there is nothing quite comparable to watching a pride of lionesses walking across an African plain as they set out on the hunt; except for healthy adult male elephants, virtually anything is fair game to a large pride. And their sociality is unique. The fact that lions are the only cats to live in large extended family groups makes them a terrific subject for understanding the evolutionary forces that shape cat behaviour and ecology.
“If I had to pick a favorite, it would probably be the lion.”
And of course, despite its high visibility in some African parks and reserves, the lion is increasingly endangered. A blue-ribbon team of many lion specialists led by Hans Bauer at Oxford University’s WildCru recently analyzed population data from 47 lion populations in Africa and found that the species is now declining in most regions of Africa except a handful of countries in southern Africa.
© Patrick Meier, courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing.
What are the major research questions we need to resolve to understand/conserve wild cats?
LH: Most species of cats are very poorly studied and we urgently need to know the basics; where they live, whether numbers are declining and what threats they are facing.
Even for a relatively familiar species such as the snow leopard, we are certain they occur in only 40 percent of their estimated range. In other words, 60 percent of the species’ range map entails areas where we have no recent survey data confirming their presence. It is very difficult to effectively conserve a species if we are not certain whether or not they even occur in a site!
© Santosh Saligram, courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing.
Another great mystery in cat ecology is what happens during dispersal, when sub-adult cats (typically) leave their mother’s home range to seek their own range. It’s a critical period in the life of a cat when many individuals do not make it, especially as dispersal increasingly takes cats into human-dominated landscapes.
We need a much greater understanding of how cats can move through such anthropogenic habitats and how to foster safe passage, for example, by maintaining wooded corridors or building underpasses for cats to safely navigate dangerous highway crossings.
What about cities and towns? Are we seeing more wild cats being forced to live in built-up human landscapes?
Increasingly, many cat populations find themselves living in the middle of human communities. Predictably, this often leads to the death of cats, usually because people react in fear or ignorance.
“If given a chance, some [wild] cats have an astonishing ability to live among people, often without their knowledge.”
Yet, if given a chance, some cats have an astonishing ability to live among people, often without their knowledge. The Eurasian lynx was virtually wiped out from Western Europe; but after being reintroduced, it now lives in one of the most densely populated regions on Earth.
Lynx are not dangerous to people, which is part of the reason for its success, but even some large cat species do an amazing job of coexisting with humans if left alone. Pumas often live very close to major metropolitan areas in the United States, and even the leopard–a species which is very easily able to kill a person if it so chooses–lives in a tiny national park in the middle of Mumbai, surrounded by millions of people (Learning to Live With Leopards).
Critically, all these populations could not survive without protected enclaves of natural habitat and prey in the human landscape; the Mumbai leopards would rapidly vanish without the park in the middle of the city, for example. Even though some cats persist in unexpected places, there is a limit to their ecological tolerance.
© Nina Siemiatkowski, courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing.
What would the world be like without wild cats?
LH: It would be a bleak world indeed. African savannah would be a tame, sad place without the sound of lions roaring at night. Many of the world’s ecosystems have lost one or more of the cat species that historically lived there, and all of them are less intact, less wild in some way.
“Reintroducing cougars…would be overwhelmingly beneficial for people.”
Aside from the terrible loss in conservation terms, that can have practical, costly implications for people. Where I live, in the northeast U.S., Anglo-Europeans quickly got rid of cougars and most other large carnivores soon after they settled here, which (in part) has produced a massive over-population of their main prey species, the white-tailed deer. A team at the University of Alaska recently calculated the consequences of reintroducing cougars into the northeast and found it would be overwhelmingly beneficial for people–that’s right, beneficial. Their models showed that, within 50 years of successful establishment, cougars would likely reduce deer densities and thus vehicle collisions with deers by 22 percent resulting in 53,000 prevented human injuries, 384 prevented human fatalities, and $4.41 billion in avoided costs.
© Nick Garbutt, courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing.
Where are the best places to see wild cats?
LH: There is nowhere like iconic African savannah woodlands to see wild cats, and few places can compete with famous African game reserves like Etosha National Park (Namibia), Hwange National Park, (Zimbabwe), Kafue National Park (Zambia) and the Serengeti-Mara complex (Kenya-Tanzania).
To see less visible cat species requires more effort, but there are amazing opportunities these days that simply were not possible a decade or so ago. The Porto Jofre region on the Cuiaba River in Brazil’s Pantanal during the dry season (August-October) now promises almost guaranteed sightings of wild jaguars, as well as a chance to see ocelots and pumas.
India’s Hemis National Park and surrounding valleys are the only places I know where there is a reasonable chance of seeing snow leopards in the wild, but only in the winter when wildlife moves down into the valleys.
It is now possible to spot even the most endangered cat on earth, the Iberian Lynx; Spain’s Sierra Morena mountains and Doñana National Park have well-protected populations where the lynx have become fairly used to tourists.
What special attributes are there that cats have that would delight and surprise us?
“The cat family…might have more members than we currently know.”
LH: Perhaps one of the most surprising things about the cat family is that it might have more members than we currently know. During the writing of this book, geneticists at Brazil’s Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul discovered that the species we had long called the Oncilla was actually two, separate species, the northern oncilla and southern oncilla. Even though they look very similar, molecular analysis shows they are genetically distinct and largely reproductively isolated.
As ever more sophisticated analyses are performed, I am sure more such “cryptic species” hiding in plain sight will be revealed and the book includes a preview of some of the likely forthcoming changes.
© Tim Wacher, courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing.
How can wild cats help us conserve nature?
LH: Because they often sit on the top of complicated trophic systems–food webs–large cats can be particularly effective umbrellas for biodiversity conservation. Cats require large tracts of mostly intact, wild habitat so the conservation of a population of lions, tigers or leopards boils down to effectively protecting those landscapes, and thus all the other species that rely on them.
A forthcoming paper published by Panthera scientists demonstrates this effect in the jaguar. The Jaguar Corridor–a network of protected areas and human-dominated landscapes connecting them–turns out to be very effective in also conserving a large number of co-occurring species, especially mammals.
Conserving cats = conserving millions of other species.
As I explain in the book, if we succeed in conserving robust populations of cats, we also succeed in conserving literally millions of other species and the intact, healthy ecosystems that are absolutely vital to all life–including people.
See more about Luke Hunter’s 2015 book: Wild Cats of the World.
© James Tyrrell, courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing.
Wild Cats of the World: The Full List of Species
Chinese Mountain Cat, Felis bieti; Wildcat, Felis libyca/silvertris/ornata/catus; Black-footed Cat, Felis nigripes; Sand Cat, Felis margarita; Jungle Cat, Felis chaus; Pallas’s Cat, Otocolobus manul; Leopard Cat, Prionailurus bengalensis; Flat-headed Cat, Prionailurus planiceps; Rusty-spotted Cat, Prionailurus rubiginosus; Fishing Cat, Prionailurus viverrinus; Marbled Cat, Pardofelis marmorata; Bay Cat, Catopuma badia; Asian Golden Cat, Catopuma temminckii; Serval, Leptailurus serval; Caracal, Caracal caracal; African Golden Cat, Profelis aurata; Geoffroy’s Cat, Leopardus geoffroyi; Oncillas Leopardus tigrinus and Leopardus guttulus; Margay Leopardus wiedii; Ocelot, Leopardus pardalis; Guiña, Leopardus guigna; Colocolo, Leopardus colocolo; Andean Cat, Oreailurus jacobita; Eurasian Lynx, Lynx lynx; Iberian Lynx, Lynx pardinus; Bobcat, Lynx rufus; Canada Lynx, Lynx canadensis; Jaguarundi, Herpailurus yagouaroundi; Puma, Puma concolor; Cheetah, Acinonyx jubatus; Snow Leopard, Uncia uncia; Clouded leopards, Neofelis nebulosa and Neofelis diardi; Tiger, Panthera tigris; Lion, Panthera leo; Leopard, Panthera pardus; Jaguar, Panthera once.
Luke Hunter is the President and Chief Conservation Officer of Panthera. Before joining Panthera, Hunter worked for the Wildlife Conservation Society as the head of their Great Cats Program and he taught wildlife ecology at universities in Australia and South Africa.
At Panthera, he is especially focused on developing and scaling up solutions to widespread retaliatory killing of big cats by rural communities, and on improving the protection of wild cat habitat. He also works on reducing the impacts of legal recreational hunting on leopard and lion populations in Africa; in the Brazilian Pantanal to reduce the conflict between ranchers and jaguars; and in Iran on Persian leopards and the last surviving Asiatic cheetahs.
He has written extensively about wild cats and their conservation, publishing widely in both scientific journals and popular media, including for Slate, The Huffington Post and National Geographic. He has published seven books including Cheetah (2003), Cats of Africa: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation (2006) and Field Guide to Carnivores of the World (2011), which has been translated into Chinese, French and German editions.
Follow Luke Hunter on Twitter.
David Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.
He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.
Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship.