With Only 400 Left, Wildcat May Be on Its Ninth Life

James Owen, National Geographic News, Mar. 10

Common cats in northern Scotland could soon push their wild ancestors to extinction, conservationists warn. New research suggests only some 400 genuine Scottish wildcats remain in Britain after centuries of crossbreeding with feral cats (common domestic cats that live in the wild).

The Scottish wildcat’s plight is highlighted in a recent survey by Mammals Trust UK. The London-based wildlife charity’s report on the 2004 status of British mammal populations calls for urgent action to save the country’s last native feline. Proposed measures include creating protected wildcat areas, neutering domestic cats, and establishing captive breeding programs.

Though wildcats were once widespread in Britain, their estimated numbers slumped to between 1,000 and 4,000 in the 1990s following centuries of persecution and habitat loss. Researchers now believe the picture is even bleaker, with as few as 400 purebred animals clinging on in the Scottish Highlands. This qualifies the wildcat as Britain’s most endangered mammal.

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Conservationists, though, are most concerned by the hybridization caused by amorous encounters with wild-living domestic cats.

“We have to do something about those mongrel cats living in the wild,” said WildCRU’s Nobuyuki Yamaguchi. “Without tackling this problem, we probably can’t secure the wildcat’s future.”

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Nobuyuki Yamaguchi concedes that conservationists need to tread warily in the U.K., a nation of pet lovers. Given the estimated eight million pet cats in Britain, he said, “Removing wild-living domestic cats one way or another would provoke certain parts of society. We can’t do anything radical.”

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