The Wildcat Felis silvestris ranges over Africa, Europe and central Asia to India, China and Mongolia. It is the most common and widely distributed wild cat species in the world. Their size, coat colour and pattern vary from continent to continent. Cats in drier areas tend to be pale or tawney with faint markings while those from humid areas tend to be darker and more heavily spotted or banded.
All domestic cats are descendants of a group of Wildcats from 9,000 – 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent of Western Asia. This area is believed to be the origin of agriculture, when nomadic tribes first began to settle and grow crops. The grain was stored in granaries that attracted rodents, which in turn attracted Wildcats. With no further need to forage widely for food, the cats and humans began an alliance that is still in place today.
The most dangerous threat to pure Wildcats is hybridization with feral domestic cats, which is happening on every continent. Of all subspecies analyzed (2007), only the Chinese Desert Cat showed no evidence of domestic cat genes, but the sample size was small. There may be very few genetically pure Wildcat populations remaining anywhere in the world.
Other threats include significant human-caused mortality, especially roadkill. The species is still considered a pest in many European countries and is illegally persecuted. Domestic cat diseases, persecution for killing domestic animals and hunting for their fur, particularly in Central Asia, are also threatening Wildcat populations.
Overall, the Wildcat Felis silvestris species is classed by the IUCN Red Data List as Least Concern, although the Population Trend is Decreasing. Individual subspecies or regional populations are not classified on their own.
How Many Wildcat Subspecies?
Traditional scientific classification (taxonomy) divided the Wildcat into three groups – European, African, Asian – based on their physical characteristics and geographical location. At one time as many as 24 subspecies were acknowledged (see below) but a recent (2007) revision based on genetic data indicates five wild subspecies:
European Wildcat Felis silvestris silvestris – Europe
African Wildcat Felis silvestris lybica – North Africa and southwest Asia
Southern African Wildcat Felis silvestris cafra – Sub-Saharan Africa
Asiatic Wildcat Felis silvestris ornata – Central Asia to India
Chinese Mountain Cat Felis bieti – Western China – Now considered a separate species (2009)
Within these subspecies there are endangered, geographically isolated sub-populations:
European Wildcat –> Scottish Wildcat F.s. grampia
African Wildcat –> Gordon’s Wildcat F.s. gordoni
The Domestic Cat is classified as either Felis catus or Felis silvestris catus, depending on the author.
Scientific classification of the Wildcat is always changing. The inclusion of the Chinese Desert cat as a subspecies is disputed by some authors, who feel it is a distinct species. The Southern African Wildcat is also disputed with some indications it should be part of the African Wildcat line.
Overall, the species is classed as Least Concern (2008). They are fully protected across most of their range in Europe and Asia, but only some of their African range. They are classed as threatened at the national level in many European range states (2007) and in China the Desert Cat is protected as a separate species.
Previous Felis silvestris classifications
- F s silvestris – Europe
- F s caucasica – Caucasus Mountains and Turkey
- F s grampia – Northern Scotland
- F s caudata – deserts east of Caspian Sea to China
- F s gordoni – Coast of Oman
- F s iraki – Arabian desert regions
- F s nesterovi – Mesopotamia
- F s tristrami – Palestine and Red Sea Coat of Arabia
- F s cretensis – island of Crete
- F s haussa – northern Spain
- F s jordansi – Jordan
- F s reyi – Corsica
- F s rubida – one specimen from the Congo
- F s ornata – India west through Iran
- F s lybica – desert regions of North Africa to Sudan and Niger
- F s cafra – Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa
- F s foxi – Senegal to Lake Chad
- F s griselda – Kalahari to south Angola
- F s brockmani – Somalia
- F s mellandi – south central Africa
- F s ocreata – Ethiopian highlands
- F s pyrrhus – northern Angola and southwest Zaire
- F s sarda – Morroco and Algeria
- F s ugandae – eastern Africa
Bibliography for all our Wildcat fact sheets
IUCN/SSC Cat Specialist Group Cat News – Various Issues
Biology & Conservation of Wild Felids; D.W. MacDonald, A.J. Loveridge, (2010) Oxford Press
Carnivores of the World; L. Hunter, (2010) Princeton University Press
Handbook of Mammals of the World: Vol 1, Carnivores; D. Wilson & R. Mittermeier(2009) Lynx Edicions/IUCN
Wild Cats Status Survey & Conservation Action Plan; K. Knowell & P. Jackson, (1996) IUCN