In an effort to bring the rare Scottish wildcat back from the brink of extinction, conservationists have released 19 young wildcats, which were bred in captivity, throughout the Cairngorms National Park in the Scottish Highlands.
The Scottish wildcat, or Felis silvestris, is the last surviving native wildcat in the UK, according to National Museums Scotland. The species, which once roamed all of Britain, is critically endangered, with an estimated 35 or fewer individuals left in the wild, Woodland Trust shared on its website.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reported in 2019, “The number of wildcats is too small, the hybridisation too far advanced and the population too fragmented. We therefore conclude that it is too late to conserve the wildcat in Scotland as a standalone population.”
Scottish wildcats have faced several threats over the years, including hybridization with domestic cats, habitat loss, accidental trapping, road accidents, hunting and disease.
The recent release is part of a larger effort to restore the population in the wild and prevent the species from going extinct. The wildcats, raised at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), have been released in small groups over the past few months. Each is equipped with a GPS-tracking tag to allow researchers with the organization Saving Wildcats to collect data on the group.
So far, one of the 19 wildcats has died from an infection, but the surviving wildcats are doing well and slowly moving away from where they were released, Helen Senn, a project leader with RZSS, told The Guardian.
“It has been really positive, in the main,” Senn said. “We have seen evidence that the cats are able to hunt and fend for themselves. From that perspective, we’re really happy.”
In total, the program is expected to release 60 Scottish wildcats, with another release in 2024 and again in 2025 at different locations within the Scottish Highlands. Cameras set up throughout the region, in addition to the GPS tags, will provide more information to ultimately determine the success of the program.
“These are the first trial releases and, based on experience from similar projects around the world, further releases and many more years of conservation action will be required to increase the likelihood of saving this iconic species in Scotland,” Senn shared in a statement.
Further efforts to protect the species include neutering and vaccinating feral, domesticated cats to prevent them from breeding with the wildcats or passing on diseases. The Scottish wildcat species is protected by law, and these animals are hard to spot in the wild, but even still, the program leaders from RZSS and Saving Wildcats are urging the public to avoid disclosing the location of any wildcat sightings.
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This article by Paige Bennett was first published by EcoWatch on 13 October 2023. Lead Image: Young Scottish wildcats bred in captivity have been released. David Tipling / Universal Images Group via Getty Images.