Did you know that our domestic house cats, who sit on our laps and sleep on our beds, come from a wild ancestor? That wild ancestor is the African wildcat, Felis lybica lybica. Sadly, habitat loss, hunting, and cars are taking a toll on the subspecies of African wildcat that inhabits central and southern Africa (Felis l. cafra). The most significant danger to Felis l. cafra, however, is hybridization with domestic cats. Because both species of cats have such similar DNA, they interbreed easily, and then the hybrids can also birth litters of kittens, further diluting the wild species.
Alley Cat Rescue (ACR) has been at the forefront of working to preserve southern African wildcats through our African Wildcat Conservation Action Plan, which combats hybridization through trap-neuter-return (TNR) of community cats in South Africa. The community cats also helped through the health benefits of sterilization, rabies vaccination, and medical care for any illnesses and wounds they have at the time of trapping.
We initiated the Action Plan in 2019, working along the border of Kruger National Park, which is home to sizable African wildcat (AWC) populations. Our expert TNR volunteers have trapped, sterilized, vaccinated, and returned about 3,500 cats in this area, which includes the towns of Hoesdspruit, Phalaborwa, Hazyview, White River, Sabie, and Acornhoek.
While we are planning to continue TNR work in the Kruger Park area (we estimate there are still approximately 4,000 more outdoor cats to sterilize), in 2022 we expanded our program to cover farmlands that border AWC habitats in the Eastern and Western Cape areas due to reports that there are many working farm cats there who are not sterilized nor vaccinated against rabies. These reports came from other TNR groups in the George area (Western Cape) and Port Alfred/Kenton-on-Sea (Eastern Cape), as well a group in Cape Town that has reported that organic farmers there use cats as rodent control instead of pesticides. Additionally, African wildcat expert Marion Holmes of Cat Conservation Trust, who lives in the Cradock area, reports that one of the biggest problems facing African wildcats are farm cats.
Image Credit: Flickr – Louise Meintjes
In response to this information, ACR has reached out to several organic farmers bureaus – CERES SA, Organic Africa, and SAOSO – to explain the danger hybridization poses to AWCs and request their help with relaying this message to farmers so that the latter may elect to sterilize their barn cats on their own, or at least be amenable to allowing us to do so for them. We also published a press release for US and world news outlets that highlights the danger of hybridization between South African farm cats and AWCs.
We also assembled a small team of local trappers, all volunteering their considerable time and efforts, to TNR the barn cats (as well as feral cats who share their general area). These volunteers have sterilized over 550 cats over the past nine months. They have reported to us that after sterilization, the cats usually become more social and form bonds with their caretakers. This is undoubtedly good for the cats’ emotional health as well as the farmers’!
The world as we know it cannot survive without biodiversity and the AWC is an important natural part of environments throughout most of Africa. ACR is committed to preserving this distinct species and we are grateful for the like-minded supporters and volunteers who are helping us actualize this goal.