Credit: Alex Riddell/RZSS
One could argue that the four Scottish wildcats born recently at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland’s Highland Wildlife Park are among the most important kittens alive right now. These kittens reflect a chance for one of the rarest feline subspecies on the planet to survive into future generations. Scottish wildcats are barely larger than housecats, but have earned the nickname Highland Tiger due to their ferocious personalities and large tails. However, fierceness has not been able to save these wildcats from near-extinction, brought on by habitat loss and decimation by farmers and game-bird hunters seeking to prevent the wildcats from hunting farm animals and birds. Conservationists estimate only a few hundred of the cats remain in the wild, and frequent interbreeding with feral and domestic cats makes it difficult for scientists to get an accurate population count.
Luckily, as part of the Scottish Wildcat Action initiative, Highland Wildlife Park has been making efforts to breed the cats in captivity, leading to the successful births of four wildcat kittens this May, three from one litter and one from a second. They join 21 other kittens produced by the Park’s adult wildcats, one of which died from a congenital liver defect, and one after being transferred to another zoo. Several of the surviving 19 kittens have successfully been placed at parks around Scotland in attempts to breed the cats at other locations and to reduce inbreeding at each zoo. Breeders plan to release the kittens into the wild once they’re fully grown.
Previous genetic tests on the Highland Wildlife Park’s captive wildcats have suggested that all the cats have hybrid genes and are not purely Scottish wildcats, but these cuddly kittens hold as great a hope as any to continue the line of the critically endangered subspecies, and may even be the only chance left to prevent their extinction.
Credit: Peter Trimming
Platt, John R. “Adorable Kittens Represent Hope for Nearly Extinct Scottish Wildcats.” Scientific American. 21 July 2016.
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