How BBC Brought a Deadly (but Adorable) Cat to Millions of Screens
January 29, 2018
January 29, 2018
Footage of a black-footed cat named Gyra adeptly hunting a lark has been seen by more than 40 million people in just a couple of weeks. The scenes—from BBC’s new critically-acclaimed wildlife series Big Cats—show that Africa’s tiniest cat also has a kill rate of 60%, making it the deadliest on Earth.
Dr. Sliwa has told UK newspaper Daily Express that recording a glimpse of the black-footed cat’s secret life is “no small feat,” as they are “notoriously shy and mobile, and only our deep insight and long-term knowledge of them has made this possible.”
Here, Dr. Sliwa offers some more insights into the species and his work with Panthera.
What’s Gyra like?
She is a relatively small female for her species with very distinctive “scared-looking” eyes, but one of the best hunters I have ever been able to watch among the 65 cats observed over the past 25 years. This has allowed me to establish the figure of an average 60% hunting success in black-footed cats, although Gyra would top this. My colleague from the Black-footed Cat Working Group, Martina Küsters, has been doing the majority of tracking and observations on her the past two years. Just before the BBC came out, we had exchanged her radio collar because the batteries were about to expire.
Why is this footage so important?
Although the part on black-footed cats is quite short, it captures the character of female black-footed cats caring for kittens quite well. It shows their energy, determination, skill, and extraordinary success in catching prey for their hungry kittens, but also their softer side of being constantly pestered by the kittens when they spend time with them at the den. We hope that this showcasing of how fascinating these cats are will lead to more interest and support for research and conservation of the species.
What are the biggest knowledge gaps about the species right now?
We know very little about dispersal and resulting survival of young black-footed cats after independence. This is due to the limitation of technology. We would need very powerful, but small, radio-collars, which would be also expandable when their neck growths further. GPS collar technology would be great, too, but again, collars are still too heavy and our budget doesn’t allow for the deployment of such collars, which are about 10 times as expensive as conventional (very high frequency) radio-collars. We also still know too little about longevity and survival, although have collected good data.
There is also a need to work in some other regions and habitats. We have so far covered two high-density areas in central South Africa, but don’t know how the species fares in the Kalahari ecosystem or in the neighboring countries of Botswana and Namibia. It is also crucial that we research their specific disease, amyloidosis, as it is a significant mortality factor and present in both our study sites. We see this when the cats drink from sheep drinking troughs—one of the few available water sources—and the amyloid protein builds up in their kidneys, rendering them dysfunctional.
What are the biggest threats black-footed cats face?
Clearly it is habitat alteration, overgrazing, indiscriminate predator control, and farmers poisoning their food or environment, which can lead to further decline of a naturally rare species that reproduces slowly and suffers high mortality rates. In addition, there may be disease transmission by domestic cats and even predation by dogs. The education of the farming community on judicious land management is of the highest importance, since the majority of the black-footed cat population is living on private lands.
What did it mean to be a consultant to BBC for this Big Cats episode?
I was contacted early in 2016 by the BBC, then advised mainly about black-footed cats, but also sand cats and other cat species. My main interest and speciality has been with the smaller and less-known wild cats species, focusing on black-footed cats, Arabian wildcats, and sand cats, but also all the other cat species, including the medium and large ones. It has been a unique opportunity to advise on the script, statements, behavior interpretation, and sounds of the various episodes, so that the content will be accurate, but still entertaining and fun. It was a privilege to be invited.
How do you feel about joining Panthera?
It is a great honor to have officially connected with Panthera as a research associate. I have known several of the scientists from my student years, and I hope that we will be extending our collaboration in particular on the smaller cat species. The main focus will be the study of the mysterious sand cat in the Moroccan Sahara, where Grégory Breton and I have done a radio-collaring project since 2013. However, there is more scope to help and advise on other little-known and threatened small cat species, like the black-footed cat, and Asian species like flat-headed, fishing and marbled cats. I really look forward to sharing my passion and professional skills with like-minded colleagues to benefit these fascinating wild cats. See more field photos of black-footed cats here. Stay tuned for more blog posts about the threats facing the species and Dr. Sliwa’s field work to research and conserve it. Panthera supports conservation and research activities on many of the 31 small cat species with our Small Cat Action Fund. Learn more here. Sign up for updates about the issues facing wild cats around the world—and learn how you can help.