Conservation status

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No fewer than 25 of the 36 cat species are listed by the IUCN, and even those which are not are often subject to serious threat at local or subspecies level, or their population status may simply be insufficiently known to classify. The most immediate threat of extinction is faced by the Iberian lynx, found in only small, isolated, populations in Spain and Portugal. But not far behind are such iconic species as the tiger and the snow leopard.

While many species of cat have long been persecuted by farmers on the grounds of their real or imagined threat to livestock, the principal direct human threat to cat species in recent decades has been commercial trapping for fur. A fashion for furs in Western society in the 1960s and 1970s saw large numbers of tiger, leopard, jaguar, and snow leopard pelts appearing in shops, and small cats were also traded extensively, peaking at 600,000 pelts traded in a single year. Species such as the ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) and Geoffroy's cat (On-cifelis geoffroyi) were hit particularly hard.

Cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) rest in the grasslands of Africa. (Photo by David M. Maylen III. Reproduced by permission.)

Concern that commercial fur trading at unsustainable levels could drive some cat species to extinction was a major factor behind the 1975 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Although some countries have been slow to enforce legislation banning trade in endangered species, the international trade in spotted cat pelts has now reduced dramatically, a trend strengthened by public awareness of the impact of fur harvesting on species survival. Today's fur trade relies on three species of lynx and the Chinese leopard cat (Prionail-urus bengalensis), supplied by the United States, Canada, China, and Russia. Commercial fur trading is not currently considered a significant threat to cat species, with the possible exception of the leopard in some areas.

Illegal poaching driven by a demand for cat body parts for use in traditional Oriental medicine is still a major problem for large Asian cats such as the tiger, which could soon be driven to extinction in the wild.

Habitat loss has mostly affected cats associated with forest habitat. Deforestation, especially in tropical Asia, has made

A cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) drinks water in Kenya. (Photo by Joe McDonald. Bruce Coleman, Inc. Reproduced by permission.)
The lioness entices the male to mate (top left). After mating (top right), the lioness will often aggressively turn on the male, rolling on her back and striking out with her claws (center). (Illustration by Marguette Dongvillo)

several species vulnerable, through the absolute loss of habitat and the fragmentation of populations. Important habitats including tropical rainforest, major wetlands, and tropical montane complexes are declining globally. However, many cat species are adaptable and can survive in modified habitat. The indirect threat of human development posed by the depletion of prey species may be of more immediate concern for the conservation of some cats as well as the incidence of disease in several populations.

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