The earliest known history of the African Wild Cat (Felis lybica) dates back 5 000 years ago to Egypt, where it was tamed for domestic use primarily for rodent control. The African Wild Cat is regarded as the ancestor of our domestic cats (Felis catus).
However, it has become increasingly rare in Africa due to its ability to hybridise so readily with its domestic counterpart - breeding occurs freely where circumstances allow.
As the African Wild cat is a cryptic species with a shy, reclusive nature and is largely nocturnal, little information is available on the animal's status in the wild. Recently, the cat's classification was changed from threatened to "unknown". There is concern that the pure wild cat gene will be lost forever unless something is done to rectify the situation.
With this in mind, The FreeMe Rehabilitation Centre for Indigenous Wildlife initiated a breeding programme based on DNA testing. Professor Eric Harley, formerly of the Chemical Pathology Department of UCT explains that individuals are classified as a wild or domestic cat on the basis of the similarity in their DNA microsatellite types to those of previously studied reference populations.
Although there are a number of wild cat breeders, few base their work on accurate DNA testing but rather on the physical characteristics of the cat. Although this may represent the species' traits (the rich red colour behind the ears and the long slender front legs allowing it to raise its body into a near vertical position when sitting), it does not preserve the genetic health of the species. According to Margi Brocklehurst, director of the Johannesburg based Centre, methods that do not include DNA testing are not accurate breed determinations.
In February 2003, the project was expanded to include The Makalali Private Game Reserve. The primary objective of the Makalali project is to release the offspring of DNA tested breeding pairs back into their natural environment where they can breed with those cats already on the reserve, thereby enhancing the genetic variability. The project will allow for the continued improvement of the breed, creating an important core group of pure African wild cats.
A long term monitoring programme has been initiated to acquire data on the ranging, foraging and reproductive behaviour of the cats. Under the care of Audrey Delsink, Makalali's Behavioural Ecologist and Head of Research, a "hands-off" policy has been adopted with the kittens. Thus, the animals are habituated to the presence of humans but retain their wild natures. To date, five cats (three males and two females) have been successfully released onto the reserve.
The released animals are completely independent and have established their own territories within a range of 2-12km of the main enclosure. The first released female has reared a litter of three kittens and the group have been observed hunting close to the release site. A further five kittens will be released onto a different area of the reserve within the next 2 months.
Audrey can be contacted at email@example.com
By Audrey Delsink