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Small Cats - Often Overlooked


Small Cats encompass approximately three quarters of the world's wild cat species and conservation research studies are essential to the future of these lesser felines. They are native to nearly all parts of the world and include many kinds of small, undomesticated cats from the 3 pound Black Footed Cat to the 80 pound Eurasian Lynx. Some scientist also include the Clouded Leopard and the mountain Lion as small cats.


Cats are exclusively meat eaters and typically sit at the top of food chains. They are dependent upon a healthy population of prey animals and so are excellent indicators of ecosystem health. Due to their predatory ways, cats have conflicted with man since the beginning of time and particularly with the advent of domestic livestock. Throughout the world, cats have been hunted and persecuted relentlessly as man has expanded his frontiers.


Education and public awareness are major components of wildcat conservation as many have never been studied in their natural habitats,  and as a result, very little or nothing is known of their requirements for survival. They are extremely difficult to study in the wild, and not just because of their size. They are shy, elusive, and adept at concealing themselves. They inhabit some of the worlds most rugged terrains from the highest mountains, to the densest rain forest canopy and the arid desert regions. Compounded by their shy, elusive nature, with most of them being nocturnal.


There are many differences between a big and small cats. But there is one thing which clearly differentiates large from small. There are no exceptions to this rule. This is the hyoid bone which connects the tongue to the roof of the mouth. In big cats this has an elastic segment, while that of small cats is hard all over. It is this which allows big cats to produce a roar, and which also prevents them from purring in the same manner small cats can. The 'purring' type of noise produced by big cats can only be made as they exhale.


Loss of habitat and human encroachment into their territories, poaching and the loss of prey remains their largest threats for survival. Though they have adapted to many of the global changes throughout the last few decades. These smaller felines are not cat fanciers of human contact. The small tropical cats are currently perceived as having no economic value, and thus are of little value in their native countries.


People destroy the cats, either deliberately or through habitat alteration and removal of prey species, because they are seen as being valueless.

Lately, more attention is beginning to focus on these small felines. Often they are included in studies evaluating total biomass of an area, or as part of a carnivore study. For effective wild cat conservation, research must make cat populations more valuable to local residents and government authorities. Field studies identify areas where they may be found, and provide data on their ecology to bring in eco-tourists. Details on the small cats prey species, usually agricultural pests and disease carriers, help convince rural people that these little cats are valuable allies. The first field study on the little kodkod in Chile discovered that local people thought the cats were vampires, due to the teeth marks on domestic poultry killed by the cats. When researchers showed people the small size of the cats, and explained they lived mainly on mice and rats, the local people became staunch defenders of the tiny cat.


Scientists fear that the numbers of most small cats are declining for two reasons.


Fur Trade Since the penalties for hunting big cats have increased, people have begun hunting the small spotted cats for their fur. Coats made from cat fur are still popular in parts of Europe and Asia. Since small cats have smaller skins, as many as 25 cats must be killed to make one fur coat. Like their larger cousins, small cats can be helped if people stop wearing their fur.


Loss of Habitat The other threat to the survival of small cats is loss of their habitat due to development of towns, cities, and farms. When people move into their habitat, small cats are often viewed as a threat to pets, livestock, or humans, and so they are killed. We can protect small cats by preserving their habitat and by learning to live with them. Keep in mind that they are important predators that control populations of potential pests like rodents.