small wild cats

Tigrinas, Fishing Cats, Manuls, Oh my!

There are seven species of big cats—like lions, tigers, jaguars and cheetahs, but big cats are outnumbered by 33 small wild cats. In fact, small cats are far more diverse than big cats. No big cats make a living catching fish like the Fishing Cat, and no big cats live in trees like the Margay and Marbled Cat. Small wild cats make the family of cats far more interesting and they need to be protected.

Re:wild's Wild Cat Conservation Program helps protect and restore Tigrinas, small cats living in Mesoamerica. (Jim Sanderson/Re:wild)

There are conservation and monitoring programs for all 17 subspecies of big cats. By contrast, only three species of small cats have dedicated threat-reduction programs throughout their geographic ranges. And while some small cats have adapted to their changing environments, many species are considered Vulnerable or Endangered. In fact, the rarest cat in the world, the Iberian Lynx, has a total population of less than 1,000. Fortunately, the European Union is committed to rewilding the Iberian Lynx. The most threatened cat in the world is the Flat-headed cat in Southeast Asia.

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The tendency to support conservation efforts for big cats over small cats is reflected in the imbalance of funding. About 99% of all wild cat investment goes toward the big seven – with just 1.2% of funding going to the 33 small cat species.

Dr. Jim Sanderson, Re:wild’s Program Manager for Wild Cat Conservation, is the founder and director of the Small Wild Cat Conservation Foundation and a member of the IUCN Cat Specialist Group. He works to get small wild cats the conservation attention they deserve. 

(Photo by Dr. Jim Sanderson)

Sanderson orchestrates a worldwide network of local partners, each committed to protecting small wild cats and their habitats around the world.

Re:wild’s small wild cat conservation program:

  • Works with the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund to identify small wild cat conservation projects and provide them with small grants.

  • Supports 10 working groups to help the species most in need.

  • Provides camera trap software, training and expertise to survey populations of small wild cat species globally.

  • Works with local partners in range countries to establish ongoing threat reduction projects to conserve small wild cats and their habitats.

  • Makes recommendations and implementing projects to reduce threats to wild cats.

  • Brings awareness to the plight of endangered small wild cats to ensure the same level of attention and funding as large cats.

Small Cat Summit attendees in Sri Lanka, December 2019.

Species-based approach

To directly address the needs of specific small cats, some of which occur in near-isolation, Re:wild works with partners to develop threat reduction programs for individual species of small cats. Re:wild has programs to reduce threats, protect, and restore 10 species of small cats:

Fishing cats (Vulnerable) throughout their geographic range from Pakistan to Cambodia

The Tigrina (Vulnerable) in the Talamanca Mountains of Costa Rica and Panama

The Pampas Cat (Near Threatened) in South America

The Guiña (Ween-yah, Vulnerable) is the smallest felid in the Americas and is found solely in central and southern Chile, as well as southwestern Argentina

Manul (Near Threatened): Also known as Pallas’s cat, lives in the grasslands and montane steppe of Central Asia

African Golden Cat (Near Threatened), Africa’s rarest cat, found in the central African equatorial rain forest belt 

Geoffroy’s Cat (Near Threatened), found in South America’s southern Cone from Southeast Brazil to Patagonia

Rusty-spotted Cat (Vulnerable); the world’s smallest cat literally half the size of a house cat, and the most secretive of the wild cats that lives in Sri Lanka, India, and Nepal 

Clouded Leopard (Vulnerable), Asiatic golden cat (Near Threatened), and Marbled cat (Near Threatened) in mainland Asia.  Re:Wid is the only organization that has active threat-reduction projects in several of its range countries

Northern & Southern Tiger-cats (both Vulnerable) in South America that have been largely neglected


Top photo: A Manul, one of the 33 species of small wild cats. (Photo courtesy of Ben Warren)


Wild Facts

  • Fishing cat’s ears naturally close tight when they dive into the water. When they fish, they first secure the fish with their paws, then transfer the fish to their jaws, and finally leap out of the water.

  • Having evolved 37 million years ago, the family of cats we know today are the only surviving members of four distinct families of cats, three families were similar to saber-toothed cats.

  • Of the 40 species of cats in the world, 33 are small cats.

  • All seven big cats – lions, tigers, Leopards, Cheetahs, Snow Leopards, Jaguars and Pumas – have tourist programs and can be seen in the wild. None of the 33 species of small cats are so easily seen.

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There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the interrelated crises of wildlife extinctions, climate change and pandemics. Re:wild works with local and Indigenous communities, conservation partners, governments and others to solve some of the world’s most pressing environmental challenges. Our small wild cat conservation approaches include any combination of the following solutions:

Protected Area Creation

We identify and prioritize wild places in need of increased protection and work to establish new conservation areas through our local partners.

protected area management

We work to improve management of protected and conserved areas to ensure a safe and equitable future for biodiversity and local communities.

Ecosystem Restoration

Supporting extensive native habitat restoration, such as reforestation, that assists in the recovery of ecosystems that have been degraded or destroyed, but that can rebound and rewild with a little help.

conservation breeding, translocations and reintroductions

Creating insurance populations to prevent extinction and active management of wildlife populations to help restore them to healthy and self-sustainable numbers across their natural range.

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Cultivating Conservation Leaders

Partnering with the next generation, passionate leaders, communities and organizations all over the world to ensure they have the enabling conditions, resources and expertise they need to most effectively protect and manage wildlife and wildlands.

Wildlife crime prevention

Developing community-led and owned prevention strategies that take into account the societal and cultural drivers of wildlife crime, and implementing systems and technology to stop poachers before a crime is even committed.

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