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Some cats get all the publicity. Big cats like lions and tigers are on TV all the time — they even have a whole week devoted to them. Did you even know that there are 28 species of small wildcats roaming the planet?
You've probably never heard of most of them. Sure, a few, like the bobcat and the ocelot, are familiar. But how about the oncilla, the kodkod and the Pampas cat of South America? And the flat-headed cat of southeast Asia? Or the sand cat of Africa?
There are also the European wildcats, with one species, the Scottish wildcat, thought to be down to fewer than a hundred in the wild, and threatened by interbreeding with feral domestic cats. And the bay cat made news recently when it was caught on camera traps in a previously unstudied forest in Borneo — a big deal for an animal that was only photographed in the wild for the first time in 2003.
If you're not familiar with these wildcats, you're not alone. Even scientists know little about many of these species. Many small wildcats have never been studied in detail, partly because it's really difficult to do. Take the oncilla: It's a little smaller than the average house cat, and it's nocturnal.
"First you have to find them," says Pat Bumstead, founder and director of the International Society for Endangered Cats (ISEC) Canada. "If you know cats, you know how elusive they can be. It's an enormous undertaking."
The lack of data means it's hard to even know for sure how endangered these cats are, and the situation is complicated by the fact that they're all more different than you might expect. Different species live in all kinds of habitats, from jungle to desert. One, the Eurasian lynx, even ranges into the Arctic tundra. They eat many different kinds of prey, from the expected birds and rodents to insects and fish.
"Other than the fact that habitat loss is affecting all of them, they are all different from each other, living in different situations with different threats," Bumstead says. "There's nothing black and white and nothing easy about small wildcat conservation."
But the biggest thing that threatens all of them is the fact that no one has heard of them. It's hard to get support for research and conservation, so education is a big part of ISEC's mission. Take the black-footed cat, which lives in the deserts and plains of southern Africa. ISEC supports the only black-footed cat research project, which has been ongoing since 1993. "Until we started promoting the black-footed cat, nobody had ever heard of it," Bumstead says.
The black-footed cat is about the size of a 10-week-old domestic kitten, so small that some of its favorite prey are insects. The cats are as cute as they sound, but the local name for them is "anthill tigers" for a reason.
"Anthill" refers to the abandoned termite mounds where they build dens and give birth. And "tiger" stems from the fact that "they don't know they only weigh 2 pounds," Bumstead says. "They will go after anything."
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