"God made the cat so that man might have the pleasure of caressing the tiger"
The earliest fossil records of the modern felid ancestors come from a period of just under 10 million years ago. However findings of such fossils are rare and it is difficult to piece together a comprehensive picture of the early relationship between the felid species.
The small cats, those grouped in the genus felis, are poorly represented, with the exception that is, of the ancestor of the modern day Lynx. The early descendants of the lynx first appeared around 4 million years ago and is known as the Issoire Lynx (Lynx issidorensis). This early lynx was larger than the forms found today and is said more to resemble those species from the genus felis, notably in having shorter legs than the lynx of today.
It is now commonly believed that the jaguar and leopard both share a common ancestry, centred in Eurasia a little over 2 million years ago. However where as the leopard spread west into Europe the early jaguar travelled east and crossed the Bering land bridge into North America. The early jaguars that inhabited the Americas were both larger and longer legged than the modern species.
Ancestral tigers were thought to have originated from Central Asia and China and spread out both east and west to cover most of Asia from the Caspian Sea to the Russian Far East. It is thought that the modern day tiger, found in northern China is perhaps the closest direct ancestor of the earliest forms of the species.
Fossil records show that the lion appeared on the scene considerably more recently than the other members on the genus Panthera. The earliest known records date back to around 750,000 years ago and stem from Western Africa. From here lions spread north into Asia and Europe, were the Cave lion (Panthera spelaea) and Tuscany lion were found in the Balkans and Northern Italy respectively. The ancestral lion also crossed from Asia into north America and the American lion (Panthera atrox) spread south as far as Peru.
Early forms of the cheetah are also believed to have inhabited North America as far back as 2 million years ago (Acinonyx studeri) to as recently as 12,000 years ago in the smaller form of Acinonyx trumani. The early Old World form, Acinonyx pardinensis found in Europe, closely resembled the modern day cheetah apart from being noticeably larger.
There are thirty-six species of small wild cats belonging to the same group or genus as the domestic cat, being all names Felis, and these, together with three species of Lynx, six species of large cats (Panthera), and the cheetah (Acinonyx), make up the family of the Felidae. With the exception of the cheetah, the felids are a contiguous group of meat-eaters which are all recognizable as belonging to the same family of mammal. They all have long legs, short faces, and sleek, athletic bodies with beautiful coats. In addition, they can all retract their claws, have a keenly developed sense of smell, and they all purr. With the exception of the lion, all the felids are solitary hunters, kill rather small prey, and usually hunt at night. Interestingly, the lion is the most social of the felids, and lives and hunts in a family group which we call a "pride".
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature Species Survival Commission (IUCN/SSC) Cat Specialist Group, nearly all wild cat species have declined dramatically due to habitat destruction and other human impacts, with many subspecies already extinct or endangered. These cats are extremely important to local ecosystems as the loss of carnivores alters a biological community's ecological balance.
Threats to Wild Cats
In addition to having their habitats destroyed by human encroachment, many wild cats have been hunted to the point of near extinction, either for their fur or because they are perceived as threats to the livestock of local farmers. Also, there are those who capture wild cats to sell as pets.
Once populations of wild cats have been significantly reduced, they are vulnerable to being wiped out by floods, fires, epidemics and other sudden events.
The Exotic Pet Trade
The pet trade in wild cats is particularly problematic for a number of reasons. In addition to contributing to the decline in natural wild cat populations, the mother cat is often killed when the kittens are obtained, and the people who purchase wild cats to keep as pets usually find that they are unable to care for them as they grow older. Adorable cubs grow up to be large predators that may attack their owners and various houseguests and neighbours.
Keeping a wild cat is also extremely costly. Big Cat Rescue estimates that vitamins and food for one of the mid-sized wild cats would be $730USD each year, while a big cat would cost $2,500 per year to feed, and these estimates do not include exorbitant veterinary costs. Overall, the annual expense of keeping a small or medium-sized wild cat is $2,300, while a larger wild cat costs more than $8,000 per year plus $94,000 in setup costs. In addition, owners of wild cats must defrost 15 pounds of blood-soaked meat in their kitchen every single day, not to mention the red tape nightmare of obtaining various permits and extensive insurance coverage. Given these problems, it is unsurprisingly that many individuals who adopt big cats end up neglecting them or handing them over to rescue organizations.
"It is just like mans vanity and impertinence to call an animal dumb because it is dumb to his dull perceptions. Heaven is by favor; if it were by merit your dog would go in and you would stay out. Of all the creatures ever made he (man) is the most detestable. Of the entire brood, he is the only one...that possesses malice. He is the only creature that inflicts pain for sport, knowing it to be pain. The fact that man knows right from wrong proves his intellectual superiority to the other creatures; but the fact that he can do wrong proves his moral inferiority to any creature that cannot."
"Our ancestors viewed the Earth as rich and bountiful, which it is. Many people in the past also saw nature as inexhaustibly sustainable, which we now know is the case only if we care for it. It is not difficult to forgive destruction in the past which resulted from ignorance. Today, however, we have access to more information, and it is essential that we re-examine ethically what we have inherited, what we are responsible for, and what we will pass on to coming generations. Our marvels of science and technology are matched if not outweighed by many current tragedies, including human starvation in some parts of the world, and the extinction of other life-forms. The exploration of space takes place at the same time as the Earth's own oceans, seas, and fresh water areas grow increasingly polluted. Many of the Earth's habitats, animals, plants, insects, and even micro-organisms that we know as rare may not be known at all by future generations. We have the capability, and the responsibility. We must act before it is too late."
- --The Dalai Lama, His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet, spiritual leader of the Buddhist faith
Please visit these sites to find out more on how to save the wild cat populations
background and graphics by: