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PLANT ECOLOGY, INVASION BIOLOGY, CONSERVATION BIOLOGY AND CATS: WHAT’S THE LINK?

An invasion ecologist by profession, a plant ecology focus to date, and a conservation biologist at heart; this seems to be an unusual mixture for initiating a project on cats?

Recently C·I·B Research Associate, Dr Llewellyn Foxcroft, with the collaboration of Marna Herbst (SANParks), initiated a study to examine the role of feral cats as invasive species in genetic introgression into the African Wildcat population in the Kruger National Park (from here on KNP). A proposal was submitted to, and has been accepted for funding, by the British Ecological Society Overseas Grants Programme (BES).

African wild cat (AFelis silvestris lybica). Photograph by M. Herbst

Llewellyn’s interest in the possible hybridisation of feral cats with the African Wildcat population started in 1997 when seeing (and hearing of) a large number of feral and hybrid cats along the boundary of the Phalaborwa section of the KNP. His interest was again raised earlier this year, this time as a conservation concern within an invasion biology framework. SANParks colleague Marna studied African wild cat behaviour in the Kalahari National Park, and was enthusiastic to become involved. Together with Dr Jaco le Roux and the molecular lab at the C·I·B, and the support of the British Ecological Society, the study was set to go.

The main objective of this project is to clarify the current genetic status of the African wild cat population in terms of its hybridisation with feral domestic cats in KNP. Second, we hope to map of levels of introgression in the KNP (e.g. around staff villages, near towns on the boundary of the KNP and in more remote areas of KNP) to identify focal areas for efficient conservation management strategies.

One of the ways in which biological invasions threaten biodiversity, is through reducing the genetic diversity of species. This is of particular concern in protected areas, whose primary mandate is to protect biological diversity and normal ecosystem processes. The African wild cat (Felis silvestris lybica) has a wide distribution throughout Africa and is generally recognized as the ancestor of the domestic cat. The identification of genetically pure wild cat populations is crucial for future assessments of the extent of hybridisation and introgression, especially for areas where African wild cats occur in close proximity to domestic and feral cats. Little is known about the genetic status of the African wild cat population in the KNP, and thus determining the genetic purity of the African wild cat population will assist in determining management strategies.

The British Ecological Society Overseas Grant Programme (BES) aims to support excellent innovative ecological research in developing countries. To reach this objective, the society provides a number of highly competitive grants for innovative ecological research.