The Shadow Cats

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Throughout history, people have been fascinated by black animals that were often perceived to be mysterious or magical because of their colouration.

In reality, this stunning coat colour is caused by an over-development of dark colored pigment in the skin, which is a condition called melanism. If either parent carries the melanistic gene, a single litter can contain both normally coloured and melanistic babies. A lack of this same pigment causes albinism, or white, animals

In the Felidae family, many species have been recorded as having melanistic coats. The most well known are the black panthers, which can be either a leopard or a jaguar. Although their coats are black, you can still see their spots, as on this jaguar cub.

melanistic jaguar panthera onca

Coat colours and markings are important in preventing a hunting cat from being seen, and black animals blend into the shadows. Melanistic leopards and jaguars are more often recorded in humid tropical forests where closed tree canopies prohibit light from reaching the forest floor.

While stripes, spots or blotches help cats disappear in dappled light, the unmarked fur of desert animals helps them blend into the background of their desert homes. A black sand cat, for example, would stand out like a beacon in the Sahara.

Among the small wild cats, four South American species have a melanistic form. As well as the cat below, melanistic Oncillas, Pampas Cats and Kodkods have been reported. This is a Geoffroy’s Cat from Big Cat Rescue in Florida.

geoffroys cat

In the thick forests of Southeast Asia, melanistic Asian Golden Cats or Jungle Cats are not uncommon. The grumpy cat below is a Jungle Cat that lived at Heidelburg Zoo in Germany.

jungle cat felis chaus

Africa also has melanistic Servals, although they are rarely seen. Servals are normally classed as cats of the marsh in grassland areas, but with a coat colour like this, the cat below must live in a higher, more thickly forested area.

melanistic serval

There has never been a recorded instance of a melanistic cougar anywhere throughout their range in North or South America. These cats obviously evolved to hunt in more open areas, and their colouring matches that of the mountain slopes and rocky areas they inhabit.

Bobcats are another animal of open areas, but they can be found in every type of habitat. Their colouring of dark spots on a light background is well known, but in Florida where the vegetation in the Everglades was once impenetrable, 3 black bobcats have been reported in the last 100 years. This photo was taken by US F&G, and the bobcat was released unharmed back into the wild.

bobcat lynx rufus

And of course the most familiar black cat species is our beloved domestic cat. I’m sure many of our readers have been owned by their very own little black panther!

felis catus

Wild Sand Cat Kittens Seen For The First Time

It was 2 a.m. in the Moroccan Sahara, and researchers were heading back to camp after seven hours of driving through sand, dust, and prickly vegetation on their fifth and final expedition to document sand cats. Gregory Breton was chatting with their local driver, Elhaj, to keep him awake, while Alexander Sliwa spent a few more minutes squatting on the roof of the Toyota Land Cruiser shining spot lamps into the bushes.

Then, it happened. Three pairs of eyes gleamed back at Alexander through the darkness about 4 kilometers from the campsite. They belonged to young sand cats, yellowish, small wild cats with broader faces and larger ears than domestic cats.

Finding sand cats (Felis margarita) in their natural range (northern Africa, across the Middle East, and southwest and central Asia) is difficult. They barely leave any visible pugmarks, they don’t leave behind remains of their prey, and their vocalizations are quiet. They move stealthily at dusk, night, and dawn, they’re good at hiding, and their fur provides perfect camouflage when they want to vanish from observers and threats. But they don’t run away.

Finding these kittens was astonishing. The researchers spent an hour taking pictures and videos and setting up camera traps in the hopes of recording some natural behavior once they left. Based on their experience with sand cat litters in captivity, they estimated the kittens were six to eight weeks old—too small for collaring. They believe this was the first time researchers have documented wild sand cat kittens in their African range.

As they were carefully leaving the kittens, making sure they didn’t startle them, the team spotted and radio-collared an adult female that was nervously roaming around during the interaction. She could be the kittens’ mother. If they collect footage of her and follow her for a long period, they can gather data on the natural reproduction cycles and offspring dispersal of this species in the wild—all topics never before documented.

The sand cat expeditions in the Sahara started in 2013, when Alexander Sliwa—the world’s leading specialist in black-footed cats, heading a 25-year study on this species in South Africa—and Gregory Breton discovered that more sand cat sightings were being reported in Morocco. They decided to travel there and try to spot some cats.

To date, they’ve’ve spotted 29 different sand cats, radio-collared 13 of them, and collected some surprising data. For instance, sand cats are traveling more than previously thought and more than what’s been recovered for any other small cats. But they still don’t know why. Additionally, it seems this desert cat is living in select parts of the desert—and if the low density is confirmed over time, the species may not be as frequent as believed, at least in this region.

Text by Gregory Breton. For details on this project and to donate to the sand cats, see our Sand Cats of Morocco page.



Sand Cats of the Sahara Desert

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How do you save a small wild cat?

Wild Sand cat 1.50To save them you first have to understand them. You need to go where they live. You need to learn the ecology of these species – activity times and rest periods, the size of the home range and territory year round, the distances they cover every day, social and reproductive behaviours, their prey species and hunting methods.

When that habitat is shared with other similar sized carnivores, you need to learn how they all co-exist.

Desert carnivores in Morocco

During the spring of 2013, Dr. Alex Sliwa and Gregory Breton (Curator of the Sand Cat breeding program in Europe) made a self-financed trip to the Moroccan Sahara. They observed Sand Cats, African Wildcats, Fennec Foxes and Ruppells Foxes.

Now they are launching the first-ever study on the ecology and behaviour of the Sand Cat in Morocco. While the Sand Cat is the priority species for research, they will also be studying those three other carnivores to determine how the Sand Cat co-exists in their shared habitat.

Never studied in Morocco, the distribution of the Sand Cat is still unclear. Between 1971 and 2000 only a few specimens had been observed in the wild. However, since 2005 and with a growing number of sightings in the Moroccan Sahara region, an enduring presence of Sand Cats is confirmed.

How do you find a small wild cat in the desert?

Researchers actively search for them with a 4×4 truck, driving at low speed, at night, shining a 100W spot lamp in a sweeping motion to detect the eyeshine reflection of carnivores. Once located, they net the animal which has taken refuge in the shrubs. When the cat has been sedated, they are measured and given a health check, then fitted with a radio collar. These animals will then be followed with an receiver and antenna to determine their movements.

Ongoing Sand Cat research

Once sufficient data is collected from radio-telemetry equipment and tracking collars then it is fully possible to:

  • sand cat felis margaritaexpand the study to the whole country to determine where the species are living in high, medium and low densities and where they are missing.
  • motivated by the study, train students and/or local employees for field work, recording and tracking the collared Sand Cats, African Wildcats, and Foxes
  • develop a partnership with local schools to speak in class and praise the animals to school children
  • during peer conferences, meetings and media events, spread the results and knowledge learned

You can help

The researchers would like to study these animals over several years to collect data throughout their lives, ideally covering several generations. But the duration of this program will depend on funds provided by the supporting donors.

Your support for this project will enable the researchers to determine the status of Sand Cats in this part of the Sahara, and begin conservation plans for their future.

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sand cat habitat
Sand Cat habitat.


Sand Cat habitat
Sand cat habitat? paw printSee our fact sheet for more information on the appealing little Sand Cat.


Summit Municipal Park Wildlife Refuge, Panama

The Summit Municipal Park is a wildlife refuge found inside Soberania National Park in Panama. It was originally founded in 1923 as an experimental botanical garden owned by the United States. Starting in the 1960s, animals started to arrive at the park from the authorities, people who owned them as illegal pets, and people who found them hurt or disturbed from habitat destruction.

All of the animals in the park are rescue animals. In the last four years, this refuge has received 850 animals and was able to successfully release 815 animals back into the wild. All of the animals that could not be released are given the best possible care at the refuge by some truly incredible people. The caretakers at the refuge volunteer their time 7 days a week (without any pay) just to ensure the animals receive the best care possible. One of the caretakers and board members, Elena, explained that while they do not receive any monetary pay, they are rewarded with the personal growth that comes from helping save these incredible animals.

Eduardo Estrada is a wildlife photographer in Panama, specializing mainly in closeups with cats rescued and housed at the refuge. “In my very specific case I have been a professional photographer for over 10 years with about three years dedicated to wildlife in general, but mainly focused on rescue cases we receive, products of seizures made ​​by the authorities from traffickers of wildlife or abuse cases , car accidents, etc.”

Eduardo says “felines stole my heart and get my greatest attention. I have worked with Jaguars, Pumas, Margay, Ocelot and Yaguarundi. I try to find approaches in my photographs, hoping that those who see the pictures get a glimpse at their souls.”

“The model in the picture is Cash, brother of Tango who are two Pumas rescued in Bocas del Toro (Panama) born a week before becoming trafficked wildlife. It is presumed that the mother was killed so the traffickers could catch them. Now they are living in the Summit Municipal Park, condemned to a life in captivity by the action of the traffickers. Elena Castejón, feline expert and Secretary of the Board of Summit Park, and Lynn Hawksworth feline expert and member of the Board of Summit Park have been his caregivers and and I am of course your photographer. I think this is a sad privilege to me.”

Panama puma Cash

No Canada Lynx Recovery Plan Until 2018

CP_LA108-69_2014_203210_lowBILLINGS, Mont. – U.S. wildlife officials revealed Monday that they expect to complete a recovery plan for imperilled Canada lynx in early 2018 — almost two decades after the snow-loving wild cats first received federal protections.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service laid out that timetable in court documents filed as part of a federal lawsuit in Montana brought by environmentalists unhappy with prior delays.

Lynx were designated a federally protected threatened species in 2000. Since then, federal officials have repeatedly missed their own deadlines to start work on a plan to help the animals. Officials have blamed budget limitations, other species that took priority and lawsuits that challenged the government’s designation of critical habitat for the animals.

In the Lower 48 states, lynx are rarely seen across a 14-state range that includes portions of the Northeast, the Rocky Mountains, the Great Lakes and the Cascade Range of Washington and Oregon. There is no reliable estimate of its population size.

U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy last month expressed frustration with the government’s progress on the recovery document and gave officials 30 days to craft a schedule. He said the “stutter-step” approach taken to date by the agency necessitated court intervention.

The lawsuit was brought last year by Friends of the Wild Swan, Rocky Mountain Wild, Biodiversity Conservation Alliance and the San Juan Citizens Alliance. They have argued that the government should be pushing ahead on the habitat and recovery issues simultaneously to keep the lynx from edging closer to extinction.

The groups’ attorney, Matthew Bishop, on Monday criticized the latest schedule offered by the government.

“Asking for nearly four additional years to complete a long overdue recovery plan — without any interim deadlines for completing a draft plan or updates to ensure progress is being made — seems unreasonable to me,” Bishop said.

In a written declaration filed with the court, a senior federal wildlife official said the additional time is needed because of budget constraints and staffing issues.

Complicating the work is the lynx’s huge range and the uncertain role that climate change could play in its survival, said Michael Thabault, assistant regional director for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

“The scale, scope and complexity of this plan factor in our proposed timeline,” Thabault said.

A response from the plaintiffs in the case is due in 15 days.

Act Now to Protect Small Wild Felines

Wild cats are in danger of disappearing all over the world. We need to learn more about the lives of small wild cats in their native habitat in order to protect them from such threats as habitat loss, persecution, poaching, illegal trade and human interference. There are many questions that must be answered before these threats can be addressed and conservation plans put in motion. Where are the cats located? What kind of habitat do they need? What do they eat? How large is the population?

Without all the ecological information gathered by field researchers, it is impossible to form conservation programs for small wild cats. Before the biologists can start their studies however, they must obtain funding for camera traps, radio-collars, salaries for local people and a host of other expenses. This rather specialized funding is getting increasingly hard to find, and many worthwhile projects are not able to be undertaken.

Join our growing list of small wild cat heroes. Please donate today.

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100% of donations received go directly to wild cats














One small wild cat species in need of your support is the Borneo Bay Cat Pardofelis badia. It is the mystery member of the cat family. Nothing is known about their habits, behaviour, ecology or reproductive biology. Previously thought to be a small island form of the Asiatic Golden Cat Pardofelis temminckii, genetic testing has revealed the Bay Cat is a unique species, and therefore a highly endangered one.  Learn more

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Help Save Small Wild Cats

Did you know the smallest wild cat species in the world weighs just 1.2 kg (2 pounds?) Like their big cousins, the small felines are under threat – habitat loss, illegal hunting for food and fur, persecution – these are just a few of the dangers facing them. ISEC Canada was formed in 1990 to help the 28 small cat species. You can help by making a donation.

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100% of donations go to the cats!

 Our programs support scientific field research learning about the cats in their native countries. For instance, research may help determine the actual number of Caracals in the wild which at present is unknown.














The word Caracal means ‘black ears’ in Turkish. Large, tapering ears with five cm erect tufts of black hair, used for communication, are the most unique feature of this cat. Black-backed ears, dark spots on both sides of the muzzle, black spots above the eyes and a black stripe from the eye to the nose break up an otherwise uniform tawny-brown to brick-red colouring. Learn more

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Give Generously to the Tiny Wild Cats

ISEC Canada has sponsored studies on small wild cats around the world. Where are the cats located? What kind of habitat do they use? What do they eat? How large is the population? These and many other questions must be answered before any conservation plans can be put in place.

100% of donations are sent directly to small wild cat conservation programs around the world.

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One of the projects that we have supported annually since 1993 is the Black-footed Cat Project.  ISEC Canada has been recognized as the longest running supporter of this project.  This long-running field study is learning what these tiny cats need to survive in the deserts of South Africa, and we are proud to support this vital work. Please help us continue our support.












The Black-footed Cat Felis nigripes is Africa’s smallest felid, and among the smallest wild cat species in the world. As special adaptations to their desert habitat, these cats have a broad skull with large, rounded ears, which provide enhanced hearing in an area with scarce prey. Low-set ears are often completely flattened in an ‘aggressive’ posture, an adaptation to hunting in areas with little cover. They are protected from the hot sand by hair on the black soles of the feet. Learn more

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Fund the Future of Small Cats

 Wild cats don’t have nine lives – their conservation begins with you!

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100% of donations are sent directly to small wild cat conservation programs around the world.

 Wildlife habitat is rapidly disappearing all over the world. Persecution, the bush meat trade, poisoning and the Asian medicine trade are also taking their toll on small wild cats. Field researchers are learning what these little cats need to survive, but equipment is costly, and they need your help. The African Golden Cat is one of the small cat species in need of your help.




The African Golden Cat Profelis aurata remains an enigma in the cat world. About twice the size of a domestic cat, they are very sturdy, powerful animals, with stout, relatively short legs and large paws. There are two colour phases: chestnut-red/fawn and silvery/dark slate-grey, of which the grey phase is often called the silver cat. Both red and grey phases occur in the same areas, and a few melanistic specimens have been recorded. Learn more

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Contribute Now to Save Small Cats


Wild cats like the Flat-headed Cat are in danger of disappearing all over the world. Habitat loss, persecution, poaching, illegal fur, food and pet trades, increased roads and other human interference in their habitats are taking their toll. So how do scientists and conservationists save wild cats?

The first step is to learn about their lives in the native habitat. Where are the cats located? What kind of habitat do they need? What do they eat? How large is the population? These and many other questions must be answered before suitable areas can be set aside and conservation plans put in motion.

Donate Now Through!

100% of donations received go directly to wild cats


Your donations help field researchers purchase radio collars, cameras and other equipment to study the small wild cats. Join our growing list of small wild cat heroes. Please donate today.

Flat-headed Cats Prionailurus planiceps are the most unusual members of the cat family, with their long, narrow head and flattened forehead. In appearance, they bear a strong resemblance to the civets, which are not cats, but members of the Viverridae family. Learn more

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