Genetic analysis shows low levels of hybridization between African wildcats (Felis silvestris lybica) and domestic cats (F. s. catus) in South Africa
Le Roux, J.J
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Hybridization between domestic and wild animals is a major concern for biodiversity conservation, and as habitats become increasingly fragmented, conserving biodiversity at all levels, including genetic, becomes increasingly important. Except for tropical forests and true deserts, African wildcats occur across the African continent; however, almost no work has been carried out to assess its genetic status and extent of hybridization with domestic cats. For example, in South Africa it has been argued that the long-term viability of maintaining pure wildcat populations lies in large protected areas only, isolated from human populations. Two of the largest protected areas in Africa, the Kgalagadi Transfrontier and Kruger National Parks, as well as the size of South Africa and range of landscape uses, provide a model situation to assess how habitat fragmentation and heterogeneity influences the genetic purity of African wildcats. Using population genetic and home range data, we examined the genetic purity of African wildcats and their suspected hybrids across South Africa, including areas within and outside of protected areas. Overall, we found African wildcat populations to be genetically relatively pure, but instances of hybridization and a significant relationship between the genetic distinctiveness (purity) of wildcats and human population pressure were evident. The genetically purest African wildcats were found in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, while samples from around Kruger National Park showed cause for concern, especially combined with the substantial human population density along the park’s boundary. While African wildcat populations in South Africa generally appear to be genetically pure, with low levels of hybridization, our genetic data do suggest that protected areas may play an important role in maintaining genetic purity by reducing the likelihood of contact with domestic cats. We suggest that approaches such as corridors between protected areas are unlikely to remain effective for wildcat conservation, as the proximity to human settlements around these areas is projected to increase the wild/domestic animal interface. Thus, large, isolated protected areas will become increasingly important for wildcat conservation and efforts need to be made to prevent introduction of domestic cats into these areas.