Educational Series: Imperiled Wild Cats Are Under Assault

When convicted animal abuser Joseph Maldonado-Passage–also known as “Joe Exotic”–was sentenced to 22 years in prison earlier this year, the case put a spotlight on a sickeningly cruel trade that endangers some of the world’s most amazing wild animals. Wild cats in unaccredited roadside zoos, like the one operated by Maldonado-Passage, spend their entire lives in tiny cages, deprived of the ability to lead any sort of natural existence. Yet the trafficking of captive cats is just one of many threats facing these beautiful and elusive animals. In fact, as a group wild cats remain one of the most imperiled and least-understood groups of mammals.

To underscore how little we really know about wild cats, there is no universal agreement among scientists as to exactly how many species exist. The number may range anywhere from 36 to 42, depending on if certain populations are considered their own species or mere subspecies. In years ahead, genetic analyses will likely continue to shed light on this question, but for now all we can say for sure is there are somewhere around 40 wild cat species in the world. These range from huge tigers and lions–some of the planet’s biggest terrestrial predators–to tiny species like the Chilean cat or kodkod, a secretive resident of South America that is about the size of a domestic housecat.

While many of the larger wild cats have been well studied, very little is known about the behavior of some of the smaller species. An example is the flat-headed cat, an endangered resident of Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand. The habits of this cat in its native tropical rainforests mostly remain a mystery. There is even disagreement among scientists about something as basic as whether the flat-headed cat is nocturnal (active at night) or crepuscular (active mainly in the early morning and evening). It shouldn’t be a surprise that information about many wild cat species is hard to find; most species are extremely wary of people and very difficult to observe in their natural habitat.

Five cat species–the tiger, lion, leopard, jaguar, and snow leopard–are officially known as “big cats” and usually all placed by scientists in the genus Panthera. One characteristic of true big cats is their ability to roar. As their group name suggests, they also include the largest cat species. The cheetah is a unique species not closely related to any other cat, and belongs to a group of its own. All the remaining cats, numbering more than thirty species, are known as “little cats.” Once, almost all of them were placed in the genus Felis, but today several distinct genra of little cats are recognized.

Although many of the little cats are indeed quite small, some are not. An example is the cougar (also called by the names mountain lion or puma), an adaptable species that ranges throughout much of North and South America. Second in size only to the jaguar among cats of the Western Hemisphere, mountain lions can reach a head-to-tail length of up to nine feet and weigh as much as 150 pounds. However, while they can growl and scream, they do not roar and so are not considered a true big cat.

Despite their status as some of nature’s most effective and powerful predators, even the largest wild cats very rarely pose any threat to people. Unfortunately, the reverse is not true. On every continent where they live wild cats are in danger, with habitat destruction being the single largest near-term threat to their survival. The felling of tropical rainforests–from Indonesia, where forests are cleared to make room for palm oil and rubber plantations; to Brazil, where a recent spike in deforestation in the Amazon threatens species like the jaguar and ocelot–is especially worrisome. A disproportionate number of wild cat species, from tigers to some of the smallest cats, depend on these biologically diverse habitats. Meanwhile in Africa, expanding agriculture is encroaching on the savannah habitat of species like the lion, serval, and caracal.

It is also important to note that wild cat habitat loss is not confined to developing countries. In North America, fragmentation of forests and other ecosystems has put some populations of species like the cougar at extreme risk. Like most of the larger wild cats, cougars are territorial and have enormous home ranges, meaning it takes a vast landscape to support a healthy population. A male cougar’s territory can be as large as 150 square miles. Over much of the United States, cougar habitat has been fragmented by urban development, agriculture, and roads. In southern California, collisions with vehicles are one of the leading causes of death for wild cougars.

In the slightly longer term, climate change threatens to destabilize ecosystems all over the world in ways we are only just beginning to understand–and wild cats along with countless other animal species will suffer as a consequence. In northern and mountainous regions of the United States, warming temperatures at high elevations are shrinking the habitat of the snow-dependent Canada lynx. The oversized paws of the lynx are specially adapted for travelling over snow as they chase their main prey, the snowshoe hare. As snow cover recedes farther up into the mountains, the area where Canada lynx can live is shrinking steadily. In Europe a similar species, the Iberian lynx, is likewise threatened by declining snow. Iberian lynx are believed to be the most endangered of all wild cat species, with only about 400 individuals remaining in the wild.

On top of climate change and habitat loss, the trade in wild cats and their parts is a threat to the survival of many species, and a horrendously cruel industry. Endangered cat species are protected under international law, and the 2003 Captive Wildlife Safety Act makes it illegal to sell animals including many wild cats across state lines in the U.S. However, a combination of lax law enforcement and lack of protection for captive big cats within many states has allowed the growth of a lucrative trade in these animals. Captive lions, tigers, and other species are frequently sold to individual owners or to roadside zoos–many of which pose as wildlife “sanctuaries” but are actually nothing more than money-making tourist attractions.

To take one example illustrating the scale of the wild cat trade: it is estimated that there are between 5,000 and 10,000 tigers living in captivity in the U.S. alone, and only 4,000 in the wild. This means the number of these big cats living in squalid roadside zoos and cages in private collections is larger than the total wild tiger population. The glorification of big cat ownership through TV shows like “Tiger King,” which features Joseph Maldonado-Passage, certainly is not helpful to the animals suffering in captivity. In January 2020, Maldonado-Passage was sentenced to prison for violating wildlife protection laws and for attempting to hire someone to murder a prominent animal rights activist.

While putting one famous wild cat dealer behind bars is certainly a victory for animals, much more is needed to ensure a safe future for wild cats. We all can play a role by taking individual action to reduce our environmental footprint, and pushing policymakers to take action on issues like climate change, deforestation, and the exotic animal trade.

Photo credit: Tony Hisgett

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Nick Engelfried Writes About Animals, the Environment, and Conservation for the ForceChange network

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