10 Most Endangered: Cats and the Big Cat Trade is about some of the most scarce species of cats in the world and the trade that is hindering their numbers.
The cat is one of the most popular household pets of all time, and there is an expansive variety of breeds. The Felidae family, which includes the common moggie, also comprises of wild and big cats that prowl in jungles and mountains all over the world.
Cats are mammals that are characterised by their acute hearing, flexible bodies, night vision, retracting claws, and sharp teeth. Cats of all sizes demonstrate dexterity and hunting prowess and share similarities such as their body shape, carnivorous diet, and territorial, solitary habits.
Cats through the ages
For a long time, it was believed that the domestication of cats first began in ancient Egypt around 3,100 years BC. However, advanced archaeological findings have hinted that it may have begun in the Middle East as far back as 7,500 years BC.
The Egyptians held cats in high regard because they protected crops from vermin and were known to attack venomous spiders and snakes. The animals became ingrained in Egyptian belief and were ritually kept by pharaohs and other social figures.
Cats were symbolic of fertility and known as guardians of homes, protecting families from disease and evil spirits. The Egyptians also believed that if a cat appeared in their dreams, good fortune would follow, and if a house caught fire, any cats were often saved first.
They remained prized in the Roman Empire; however, many things considered sacred by previous cultures have often been dismantled by new ones, and the Middle Ages saw the rise of Christianity.
At this time cats were described as demonic figures, confounded by superstitions and folklore relating them to bad luck, evil and witchcraft. Due to their solitary and independent nature, they were easily perceived as outsiders.
In medieval Europe, domestic and wild cat species were hard hit with blood-hunting encouraged across the continent. The dramatic decrease in their numbers at this time has since been linked to the outbreak of bubonic plague in 1348 CE.
But cats prevailed, mainly due to their usefulness in pest control, and to this day have become a part of culture and a classic home companion. It’s now estimated that over 220 million are owned worldwide.
Although domestication has watered down the genetics of modern household cats, their DNA still traces back to their big cat ancestors. For most people, these types of animals can be admired in zoos and safari parks, with many adapting well to a life in captivity where their needs are adequately met.
However, in the wild, various species face the threat of extinction. Habitat destruction, hunting, and human development have decimated their numbers. After these, widespread poaching for the exotic pet trade is another great threat. The trading of protected wildlife, like big cats, is one of the largest sources of criminal earnings, behind only arms smuggling and drug trafficking.
The big cat trade
The commercial sale of big cats is legal in most parts of the world, including countries in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the USA. Laws allow for them to be used in breeding operations, employed for entertainment purposes, and kept as pets. They are also exported to countries where there is a high demand for their fur skins and uses in traditional medicines.
A lack of regulation and enforcement has led to a dark industry underbelly where there is a fine line between legal and illegal activities.
Wild big cats, and particularly their young, are targeted by poachers, who remove them from their natural habitats and turn them into a commodity. Their sale has become a worldwide, multimillion-dollar industry. As well as being unnecessary and unsustainable, the big cat trade is responsible for a multitude of welfare problems.
Animals are sold at illegal online auctions and smuggled across borders, often in unbearable conditions. Frequently, buyers are misled into thinking the animal they purchased was bred in captivity or exported legally.
In the last decade, there has been a dramatic rise in the trade. Social media platforms like Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube host photos and videos of big cat owners, who see their possession as the epitome of luxurious living.
Big cats are used as a “must-have” accessory to garner online attention and boost the perceived status of their keepers. The content these individuals share provokes a naturally occurring, strong, and emotional reaction from viewers. The accumulation of likes, followers, and engagement has led to an escalation in demand.
But owners are often unprepared or unable to provide for creatures that are far removed from their natural habitats. Many are ultimately abandoned, and there have been several high-profile instances of big cats attacking, mauling, and even killing their keepers.
In the wrong hands, big cats that are kept as pets may mutilate themselves and suffer from malnutrition, loneliness, and the overwhelming stress of confinement. Many will eventually succumb to the trauma. The trade is also deadly for animals hidden from visibility, with countless dying in insufferable conditions on their way to the market.
In the UK, the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 was introduced to prohibit private owners from keeping exotic wildlife, like endangered cats. As in other Western countries, owners must secure a license to keep them and prove that their living conditions meet standards that ensure public safety and the welfare of the animal.
But there are regular reported sightings of big cats roaming the British countryside that could have escaped or been freed from illegal captivity. Across the world, the introduction of non-native species to lands creates threats to farming and livestock and wreaks havoc with local ecological systems.
The adoration of big cats as pets and the trading of them are only two aspects of the problem. The IUCN Red List of Endangered Species includes 39 species of cats. Those covered here in 10 Most Endangered: Cats are victims of the trade, but they are also subjected to the more common problems that face all endangered species on the planet.
To learn about some incredible and rare species of wild and big cats, read on for 10 Most Endangered: Cats
1. Iberian lynx
Native to the Iberian Peninsula (Southern France, Spain, and Portugal), the Iberian lynx is a medium-sized wild cat that marks its territory by clawing trees. An expert hunter with a main diet of rabbit, the Iberian lynx has suffered due to disease outbreaks killing its main source of prey. Hunting and human development have also devastated their populations. Conservation efforts have seen their status change from critically endangered to endangered in recent years.
2. Flat-headed cat
The flat-headed cat inhabits the inland peat swamps, lakes, and mangrove forests of Brunei, Malaysia, and Indonesia, but development across these regions has led to water pollution that has impacted their populations. It formerly inhabited Thailand too but is now thought to be extinct. Flat-headed cats have adapted to a life of water-based hunting, and their main diet consists of fish, frogs, and shrimp. Its flattened skull and small ears gave it its name.
3. Clouded leopard
The clouded leopard has been listed by the IUCN since 2008. The wild cat is found in the foothills of the Himalayas and throughout Southeast Asia and China. It once inhabited Singapore and Taiwan but has been declared extinct in these regions. Clouded leopards are deemed the most talented climbers among the Felidae family and hunt in trees as well as on the ground.
4. Andean mountain cat
Andean mountain cats can be found in the Andean mountain range that crosses Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, and Peru, up to altitudes of 4000 meters. The cat is seldom sighted due to its habitat, and it has been difficult to observe and accurately monitor their populations. It’s believed that their decline could be linked to a lack of suitable prey. The Andean mountain cat is known as “huana titi,” which translates to “the cat from dry places.”
Status: Near threatened
Jaguars are the largest cats that are native to the Americas. Their populations are menaced by habitat loss, poaching, and conflict killings. Since the times of the Aztecs, Jaguars have been considered symbols of power, strength, and elite warriors. Archaeological sites in Guatemala have revealed buried jaguar bones that suggest ancient Mayan civilizations may have kept the cats domestically. Its name derives from Native American and means “he who kills with one leap.”
6. Malayan tiger
Status: Critically endangered
The Malayan Tiger is from Peninsular Malaysia and is the smallest of all land tigers. The tiger is symbolised on the coat of arms of Singapore. Fragmentation of its jungle habitat is considered to be their main threat, with commercial hunting for the medicinal market also having a dire impact on their population. In 2021, the Cabinet of Malaysia announced the beginning of nine conservation strategies to try to secure the survival of the Malayan tiger.
7. Asiatic lion
Status: Critically endangered
Asiatic lions once roamed from the Middle East to India, but now their remaining population can only be found in India’s Gir National Park. Human activities and the destruction of their habitat have cost the Asiatic lion population, but government policies are in place to protect the animal. The Asiatic lion is closely related to the African lion, but unlike their cousins, Asiatic lions prefer small prides, with the males living solitarily until breeding season.
8. Scottish wildcat
Status: Critically endangered
The Scottish wildcat is the only member of the cat family to be found in the wilds of the United Kingdom. It roamed in Wales and England until the middle of the 19th century, when England’s last wildcat was shot dead. Their populations are now restricted to the remote moors and woods of the Scottish Highlands, where they mainly feed on rabbits and ground-nesting birds. Wildcats remain at risk from wind farm developments and interbreeding and hybridization with domestic cats.
9. Florida panther
Status: Critically endangered
The Florida panther is generally only found in the Big Cypress National Preserve and the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, but occasionally it roams into other areas in southwest Florida. Florida panther numbers have been hard hit by poaching and wildlife control as well as auto accidents and habitat fragmentation from road construction. The panther is a subspecies of mountain lions and pumas, and is identifiable by its striking blue eyes.
10. Black-footed cat
The black-footed cat is the smallest African cat and is endemic to Africa’s southwest arid zone. Despite its name, only the pads of the creature’s feet are coloured black. The animal is extremely timid and hides at the slightest disturbance, but can be aggressive when confronted. Diseases, farming, poisoning, and trapping have significantly damaged their numbers. 65 collared black-footed cats are helping researchers understand more about the species.
As with all of the animals featured in the 10 Most Endangered series these endangered cats are at risk mainly because of human activities and the growth and expansion of our populations and civilizations.
Personally, I find it sad that our race continues to treat cats in cruel ways. Throughout history, they have been hunted, vilified, and used for entertainment or the production of pointless products. Wild and big cats are beautiful, majestic, and powerful creatures that deserve care and preservation. For me, their use as pets and as accessories for social media posts is completely unwarranted. I believe that this type of content should be blocked on platforms, and the big cat trade should be banned.
Luckily, there are many conservation organisations working to save endangered cats and police the trade. But their work is complex and difficult, and it can be arduous to engage top-level government. That’s why public education and awareness on these matters are important and go a long way in waging the war on illegal trade.
As I finish writing this blog post, it has been announced that the US Government will ban and outlaw private citizens from owning big cats, and existing owners will now require a federal permit. This is a landmark moment in the fight against trading and hopefully the first of many global steps forward.
If you’d like to learn more about wild and big cat conservation follow the links below:
Catch up on the previous blogs in the 10 Most Endangered series here:
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All text ©J. Thomson, 2022