The wildcat of Scotland

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LISA MULLINS: Some of the world's most endangered wildlife are obscure species, in far-flung corners of the planet. Other endangered creatures are more familiar. One on them lives in the Highlands of Scotland. It's a small wildcat that used to prowl far and wide throughout Britain. Ari Daniel Shapiro sent us this profile of the creature and the efforts to save it.

ARI DANIEL SHAPIRO: Listen closely. It sounds like a housecat. And when you look up and see it crouched above you on a catwalk here at Scotland's Highland Wildlife Park, you'd be forgiven for thinking it is a housecat. Just an especially fluffy and wary one. So what's it doing at a wildlife park?

DOUGLAS RICHARDSON: You really need to look at them a bit closer.

SHAPIRO: Because when you do, says the park's animal collection manager Douglas Richardson, you'll see a few telling differences.

RICHARDSON: That strong black banding on the tail. When a domestic cat gets annoyed and its tail fluffs out, Scottish wildcat, their tails are permanently like that. So that is the real giveaway.

SHAPIRO: The giveaway that you're looking at a Scottish wildcat, an ancient resident of Great Britain that was here long before the domestic housecat, and even humans. I came here to see the wildcat because, well, they're actually hard to find in the wild. The cats used to roam the entire island, but researchers believe there are now fewer than 400 left.

DAVID HETHERINGTON: We've had wildcats in Britain for about 9,000 years. But of course, the wildcat in the last few hundred years has faced quite a number of challenges.

SHAPIRO: David Hetherington is the manager of the Cairngorms Wildcat Project.

HETHERINGTON: There's been a great deal of deforestation historically. Then there was very intense persecution so that actually by 1860, the wildcat existed only in the Scottish Highlands, and of course that's the most wild, and most remote, most thinly populated part of Britain.

SHAPIRO: The Highland Wildlife Park sits on the edge of Scotland's huge Cairngorms National Park. The park and the surrounding landscape are filled with gently flowing streams, rolling hills, and deep stands of pine. They're one of the only places where the wildcats still roam free. But even researchers like Hetherington have trouble finding them.

HETHERINGTON: Here's hoping that we do actually get some wildcat photographs.

SHAPIRO: Hetherington uses camouflaged cameras to try to take photos of wildcats. He opens one of them and clicks through the images.

HETHERINGTON: Yeah, there's a soay sheep.

SHAPIRO: The cameras are motion-activated, so other creatures often end up in the frame.

HETHERINGTON: There's a roe deer and what appears to be a badger. So yet again, the Scottish wildcat eludes us today.

SHAPIRO: But the wildcat does occasionally pose for a cameo.

HETHERINGTON: We've certainly had it confirmed that we do have pure wildcats in the national park.

SHAPIRO: But there's a problem. Turns out there are other cats here as well. Not Scottish wildcats, but domestic cats that have gone wild in Scotland. Confused? You're not alone.

HETHERINGTON: We also can tell from the photographs that we've got hybrids.

SHAPIRO: You see, Scottish wildcats and domesticated cats are closely enough related that sometimes even they can't tell the difference. They can interbreed. And that's the biggest threat to the Scottish wildcats today.

HETHERINGTON: Over time, what you see is fewer and fewer pure wildcats, and more and more hybrids, which of course are less well adapted to the environment.

SHAPIRO: Hetherington's trying to get the local population of feral domestic cats under control. He's also pushing for stronger legal protection of the true wild cats. And he's trying to change cultural attitudes here. He and his colleagues have begun a PR campaign to rebrand the Scottish wildcat as the Highland tiger.

HETHERINGTON: It's very much an animal of the Highlands. It's one of us. It's a tough animal living in a tough landscape, just like these Highlanders themselves. It's not like some big southern pussycat that you might get elsewhere in the UK.

SHAPIRO: The wildcats are also an important part of the local ecosystem. They're one of just a few remaining natural predators in the Highlands and they help keep the population of small mammals in check. You'll see that conservation message on signs throughout the Highland Wildlife Park. Today, the furry wildcats here have drawn the attention of a group of schoolchildren in bright jackets.

MALE SPEAKER: It's really hard to find a real wildcat, just like hanging around in the forest and all that. And it's really easy to see them in like a zoo.

MALE SPEAKER: Well, cats are kind of like my favorite animal. And I like the wild, so putting them both together is just my favorite.

SHAPIRO: It's that uncanny combination of wild yet familiar that helps people here relate to the Scottish wildcat, and that supporters are hoping might preserve them in the end. Who wants there to be more wildcats in the wild and not just in captivity?

MALE SPEAKERS: Me, me, me, me�

SHAPIRO: For The World, I'm Ari Daniel Shapiro, Cairngorms National Park, Scotland.

MULLINS: Ari's story was produced with the help of the Encyclopedia of Life.