Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Saving species

Written on 31st May, published with the agreement of the press team at RZSS and other interested parties

I have been stagnant these past two weeks, my mind and body rebelling against the great pile of jobs which has built up during almost four months of travel. Over these two weeks I could-have-should-have-would-have prepared better for this trip to Scotland, read more, written more here (I still have a mountain of ideas from Asia), and generally been a more assiduous marsh tit. Instead my body and mind have been in rebellion.

Today, like a proverbial new broom, Doug Richardson swept into my life and filled my mind with ideas, with questions, and with excitement for this second, British stage of my Big Cat Quest. Doug is Head of Living Collections at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland's Highland Wildlife Park. And well he should be. He has spent his working life in many of the world's finest zoos and is full of zeal for the role that responsible zoos can play in wildlife conservation on our pained and compromised planet.

Doug had kindly agreed to meet me today to talk about cats at the Highland Wildlife Park and for two hours this morning that's just what we did.

Our conversation was wide-ranging (geographically and intellectually), tangential (at times almost fractal), impassioned, and frequently expletive. Often when listening to zoo folk in the past I've been disappointed by their apparent lack of knowledge of wildlife where it belongs: in the wild. Not so with Doug. His range of experience and reference is enormous, embracing distant continents and diverse animal groups with ease. He cites obscure subspecies of cat and best practice for raising arctic ducks in captivity without pausing for breath, and has always a dark spark of humour in his eye. Here is a man who is passionate about wildlife and its conservation.

It so happens that his contribution to its conservation is in captivity.

We spoke of so many things that it would be impossible to list them all here. I shall summarise some of what we said of cats, species by species, mog by mottled mog, beginning (in this post) with our native wildcat.

Wildcat Felis silvestris grampia

Among the most threatened vertebrates in the UK is the wildcat. It is known as the Scottish wildcat by historic accident, for everywhere else in the UK we killed it off. It survived, by accident, only in the remotest and least tamed reaches of Scotland.

A second peril compounds this range restriction today: hybridisation with domestic cats. This has been recognised as a problem for some decades and as an acute problem for several years but in Doug's no-nonsense words, 'We kinda faffed about.'

Today no-one knows whether any pure wildcats remain in the UK for none has yet been found. I learn from Doug that this includes the captive population: of some 35 wildcats of Scottish origin in captivity he estimates that 20% are 'worth breeding from.' Genetic tests to identify these animals are ongoing.

Genetic tests are also applied, where they can be found and caught, to cats in the wild. As part of the recovery programme coordinated by Scottish Natural Heritage there will be a widespread campaign of trapping, led by RZSS, to establish where there are cats, how pure they are and (this is where controversy enters the equation) which few should be brought into captivity as the founders of a new, representative breeding population.

Hackles will doubtless have risen at that last statement. Bring them into captivity? It shouldn't be allowed! Why would SNH take away our wildest animal's wildness? The why of it is tragically easy to understand. For a very long time there have been domestic cats in the range of the wildcat. All domestic cats, Doug says, are descended from just six founder females of Middle Eastern origin. Middle Eastern wildcats, and their domestic inheritors, are genetically very distinct from European ones but interbreed freely with them and produce fertile offspring. This is precisely what they have been doing for generations, with the result that there are possibly no pure wildcats left in Scotland at all, not to mention the rest of Europe.

Two measures of purity are used to assess wildcats which are caught. The first is phenotypic, based on characteristics of pelage which are known markers of Scottish wildcats, and is carried out by Andrew Kitchener of the National Museums of Scotland. The second is genetic and is carried out by RZSS. The benchmark for what a pure Scottish wildcat ought to look like, and what it should be genetically, has been taken from museum skins and mounted specimens of the nineteenth century. On account of the lack of 100% pure animals identified thus far in the captive and wild populations, a lower genetic threshold must be applied regarding what is functionally a wildcat.

The fundamental problem is that even those wild animals deemed functional wildcats are still surrounded by feral cats and less pure hybrids. It is for this reason that Scottish Natural Heritage, the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, Doug and many colleagues have accepted that in the short term the only solution for the wildcat is to take more animals into captivity, and there maintain and build a population of animals which genetically and phenotypically best represent the Scottish wildcat. Cats left to their own devices in the wild, through most of Scotland, will soon be wholly swamped by the genes of feral cats and an irreplaceable part of our island's biodiversity will be lost, through genetic attrition, forever.

RZSS and Highland Wildlife Park's role in this has several elements. The simplest (though by no means logistically simple) is that half-a-dozen relatively pure Scottish wilcats are kept at the park and are bred (I saw some adorable kittens today) under the studbook kept by the Aspinall Foundation at Port Lympne in Kent. Secondly through this same work Doug's team contributes to understanding of wildcat husbandry, and this will be critical as the species' conservation becomes, in the short term, more dependent on captive management. Such management of wildcats at the Highland Wildlife Park forms part of Scottish Wildcat Action (new website to be launched soon), a multidisciplinary approach to the conservation of the cat involving captive breeding, threat reduction in the wild in six priority areas of Scotland and extensive monitoring to assess the effectiveness of measures being taken.

In addition, the Highland Wildlife Park can act as a quarantine facility for animals which come into captivity, either through chance (such as orphan kittens) or as a result of deliberate trapping, and can facilitate the incorporation of animals of wild origin into the captive population. Critically the park has large areas which are off exhibit and in which genuinely wild animals can be kept away from the gaze of the public, safe from habituation to humans. It is very clear in the minds of all involved that wildcats, however much intervention is needed, must be kept wild.

It is the word wild and our romantic understanding of it that cause most controversy. Those of us who believe in the conservation of wildlife still hanker after a wilderness in which wildlife looks after itself. It offends us to think that wildlife should be brought into captivity in order to preserve it. The wild should be wild! When recently Craig Packer, director of the Serengeti Lion Project, and arguably the world's greatest authority on lions in Africa, declared on the basis of decades of research that the only way to save lions in the Serengeti was to fence this massive park he was vilified. Despite clear evidence that the lion is declining catastophically across Africa and that conflict with humans in the Serengeti is reaching a critical level, he was shouted down. There were even voices from the conservation community which argued that it would be better to have no Serengeti than a fenced Serengeti.

Doug has no time for such sentimentality (and nor in fact do I). My own response is to ask whether those who would rather have no Serengeti have been there, whether they have seen the phenomenal spectacle of its migrating herds and their attendant predators. To lose such a treasure by taking a holier-than-thou attitude towards conservation would be unforgivable.

Doug believes that the same applies to the wildcat in Scotland. The evidence that hybridisation is destroying the species apace is unassailable. Better therefore to be the custodians of some of the purest cats in captivity for a generation or two, until a solution to hybridisation can be found across wild landscapes, than to preside inactive over the extinction of this remnant of our primeval wildness.

If it were only that easy

My customary selfie,
this time with a Scottish wildcat

In the end, after a week of searching, I did manage to see a largely pure wildcat in the wild. The story of the encounter may be found here.

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