Maritzburg Sun (South Africa)

Are there more African wildcats in KZN than we know?

- Jade le Roux

second confirmed pureAbred

African wildcat coming through FreeMe Wildlife Rehabilita­tion Centre’s doors in the past six months increases the possibilit­y of the species being more common in KZN than is currently recorded.

Hot on the heels of releasing the last African wildcat brought in in June last year, FreeMe was alerted to another suspected African wildcat in the Kamberg area in January. This cat was also caught by farmers for being the neighbourh­ood bully.

“Thankfully, it was trapped and brought into FreeMe Wildlife for positive ID and relocation. As a profession­al wildlife rehabilita­tion centre, we have a responsibi­lity to make sure this is in fact a purebred African wildcat, and the only way to be certain is with a DNA test to prove this,” FreeMe explained.

When the DNA test results from SANBI came back positive, having a threshold of over 90% DNA for being a pure African wildcat, the second positive case has left FreeMe questionin­g whether there are more African wildcats in the area than what is currently known.

“African wildcats have been known to hybridise with feral cats which has caused genetic pollution. But these two positive DNA results mean that the parents of both cats were purebred African wildcats, which means despite the population of feral cats in the areas, these African wildcats have chosen not to interbreed. It also means there must be at least six African wildcats in the area, because these cats were found in different regions, which means they came from different sets of parents,” FreeMe CEO Wade Whitehead explained.

He said this discovery was exciting as it provides insight into the footprint of the very elusive and rarely sighted cat species. Although African wildcats are the most common and widespread of Africa’s cats, due to their elusivenes­s in the wild, they are very rare to spot.

“No one really knows much about the African wildcat and its population and habitat as they are very elusive and hard to spot. Hybridisat­ion of the species also poses a challenge to determinin­g purebred status. Even if you pick up tracks or spot a wildcat in the bush, you cannot ascertain whether it is a purebred without a DNA test.”

African wildcats can easily be mistaken for domestic tabby cats, but some tell-tale features include: black paw pads, rufous colour behind the ears and around the muzzle, black striping towards the end of the tail, dark striping down the slightly longer legs, white around the eyes and an “inherent wildness to it”.

The previous African wildcat, which was released into the Underberg area, has had a VHF collar put on it for future tracking. Unfortunat­ely, these collars are expensive and FreeMe can’t afford to track every cat.

“Every cat is microchipp­ed, so we will know if we are dealing with the same animal if it comes in again,” Whitehead explained.

Due to the fact that these cats have become pests in the areas they originated from, FreeMe does not release them back to the same area. “They are caught and brought to us as problem animals so for their own wellbeing we will not release them back to the same area. The first one was released around Underberg and this one will probably be released near Zululand. We work with Ezemvelo to make as educated a decision as we can, based on areas we suspect there is a strong possibilit­y of having an African wildcat population.

“These cats’ genetics are too valuable not to restore back to the wild and ensure their preservati­on.”

Whitehead confirmed the tomcat is doing very well at the centre and made special thanks to the Fondation Brigitte Bardot, FreeMe’s funding partner who assists with the running costs of the centre.

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