During certain periods of ancient Egyptian history it was illegal to kill cats, any cats. The punishment for said infraction? Death. Cats were considered so sacred that only the Pharaoh was permitted to own them. Now, not only do sickly stray cats slink through the capital, but the country is facing widespread extinction of its wild felines. Of the ten wild cat species present in Africa, six once roamed Egypt. Just how many wild cats still exist is difficult to determine because the animals are so elusive, but experts claim that not only is it crucial to biodiversity to map and protect remaining populations, but to eco-tourism.
Almasry Alyoum reports that The Jungle/Swamp Cat, the Wild Cat, Sand Cat, Caracal, Cheetah and Leopard at one time existed in Egypt. The cheetah went extinct in the 1980s while the leopard is listed as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Wael Shohdi, the coordinator for Nature Conservation Egypt, says the Swamp Cat is among the most important species to protect given that they are native to the country. They also adapt well to a changing environment. They can be found cruising through the cane fields and agricultural lands of Fayoum and Wadi Rayas.
The challenge is mapping them, because they elude researchers. But doing so is essential to protecting them as their populations are threatened by hunting, habitat destruction, and land reclamation in desert areas, the paper reports.
British naturalist and author of a field guide to Egyptian mammals, Richard Hoath warns that while cat species are threatened worldwide, Egyptian cats face a particular set problems.
Interbreeding is common among domestic cats, which dilutes the unique gene pool, spreads disease, and drives up competition for food resources. The desert species, meanwhile, do not adapt well to climate change.
Another sinister problem in Egypt is trapping: not far from the famous Giza pyramids, in Abu Ravash, wild cats often get in traps set for foxes and jackals. And illegal hunting, trade, and agriculture wipe out indigenous populations.
If biodiversity is not a compelling enough reason to protect existing species, Hoath points out that eco-tourism provides an increasingly valuable boost to Egypt’s economy, and wild cats are an important draw given their role in ancient Egyptian culture.
More on wildlife conservation in the Middle East:
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