This article is part of Al-Masry Al-Youm’s weekly “Endangered Species” series, covering Egypt’s endangered flora and fauna.
Of the ten wild cats species found in Africa, Egypt is thought to be home to around six of them.
The jungle cat, also called the “swamp cat” (Felis chaus), the wildcat (Felis silvestris), the sand cat (Felis margarita), the caracal (Caracal caracal), the cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) and the leopard (Panthera pardus) have all roamed the various deserts and regions of Egypt in recent years.
Some of the six are now extremely rare, and may no longer exist in Egypt: Mammal experts say the cheetah is most certainly extinct in Egypt–it’s last footprints were recorded in the 1980s–while the leopard is considered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to be “critically endangered.”
Wael Shohdi is a mammal expert, environmental researcher and the coordinator for Nature Conservation Egypt. According to Shohdi, the swamp cat deserves special attention as this species is endemic to Egypt. The swamp cat looks fairly similar to a domestic cat, only much larger, with a short tail and yellow-brown fur.
Richard Hoath, a British naturalist and the author of “A Field Guide to the Mammals of Egypt,” published by the American University in Cairo Press, also expresses a keen interest in the swamp–or jungle–cat.
“The swamp cat is the most common wild cat in Egypt, and it's the species that adapted best to the changes in its living environment. They are fairly common in cane fields and agricultural lands in Fayoum and Wadi Rayan, but very elusive,” he says.
This elusive nature is shared by the whole community of wild cats, both in Egypt and worldwide, which explains the impossibility of evaluating the exact size of their population.
Shohdi says that, in order to learn more about the actual population of wild cats in Egypt, programs should be launched to survey wild cats all over the country, and not only the ones that live in protected areas. While it is possible to determine that the population of cheetahs and leopards has significantly decreased in Egypt due to active hunting and habitat destruction–mostly through land reclamation in desert areas–it is not possible to estimate the variation in other wild cat populations in Egypt over the centuries.
“All cat species worldwide are threatened,” says Hoath, “but the biggest threat for wild cats in Egypt is interbreeding with common domestic cats, because they lose their genetic distinction.” The introduction of feral and domestic cats into the wild cats' natural habitats accelerates hybridization, disease transmission as well as competition for food resources.
But that's not the only thing that threatens the wild cat community of Egypt: “Habitat destruction has a huge impact on these cats, because the desert species do not adapt well to a changing environment. Non-selective trapping is also a concern. There have been reported cases of wild cats being trapped in Abu Rawash–8km North of Giza–in traps designed for foxes and jackals.”
The illegal trade and smuggling of wild cats is also threatening the community, while agricultural areas can be poisonous to these furry mammals.
Yet the cats are of great value to Egypt, not just as part of its biodiversity. Shohdi says that wild cats, “in addition to being an important part of the ecosystem, are also a source of attraction for eco-tourists.” Eco-tourism is a type of tourism gaining growing popularity in the West, and Hoath, writing for Egypt Today one year ago, recalled a meeting with Martha and Ryan, a couple of Americans who were making a trip to observe Africa's ten species of wild cat. As Hoath wrote, to see the swamp cat and "complete that odyssey they had to come to Egypt.”