Tiny wild cats all set for a long journey

TWO rare, pint-size wild cats are due to be begin a long journey this weekend from the Eastern Cape to Denmark, to join a captive breeding programme to add vital resilience to their gene pool. Black-footed cats are the second smallest wild cat in the world behind the rusty spotted cat of India and Sri Lanka.Counts are difficult because of its nocturnal, highly secretive behaviour, but it is estimated that there are only 10000 of them left in the wild.

They are threatened by secondary poisoning by insecticides which farmers spray for locusts, and by the ploughing up of the veld, which reduces the number of insects and small birds, which they would normally prey on. They are also threatened by uncontrolled dog packs, deployed by some farmers to hunt stock predators, although the black-footed cat does not kill stock.

Nicknamed  “anthill tigers”, because of their fiery disposition and habit of sleeping in burrows in old anthills, the little cats are range-restricted to the arid areas of southern Africa, including the Karoo.

The species has the same markings as a leopard, a distinctive crouching run, a blood-curdling growl and an unusual way of flattening its ears sideways when it’s angry – which it often is.

Despite its ferocity, however, it is only big enough (males average 1.9kgs) to eat  insects, rodents or at most Cape hares. 

The pair about to set off, a male and a female, are headed for central Denmark, to the Rheepark Ebeltoft safari park. They were born and are presently resident at the Cat Conservation Trust facility near Cradock. 

The first leg of their journey is relatively short, just up to Mpumalanga, where they will spend time at the famous Hoedspruit Endangered Species Breeding Programme, trust co-founder Marion Holmes told The Herald yesterday.

“The idea is that they will hopefully breed at Hoedspruit and then they will move on with three more of their species to Rheepark. It’s all about mixing and strengthening the blood lines, just as they would be in an unrestricted situation in the wild.”

The trust focuses on protecting and breeding four African cats: the caracal, serval, African wild cat and the black-footed.  Care is taken to have as little human contact as possible with them in order to achieve the primary aim of restocking wild populations.

The black-footed cat has huge conservation value as it helps control insects, which can cause disease in stock and crops, and rodents, which otherwise cause much more damage to the seed beds of the veld, she said.

“But unlike some other cats, which breed easily in captivity, black-footed are highly-susceptible in captivity to disease. So there are challenges. But these breeding programmes are vital to being able to establish a strong world-wide captive gene pool.”

There are about 40 black footed cats in captivity and the first successful in-vitro fertilisation and birth of black-footed cats was recently achieved in the Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans in the US, she noted.

“This is fantastic news as it allows for the collection of sperm from wild black-footed cats and this sperm can then be used in captive programmes to ensure genetic diversity.”




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