Cats in Iran
N° 10 | Autumn 2016
CATnews Special Issue 10 Autumn 2016
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Cover Photo: From top left to bottom right:
Caspian tiger (K. Rudloff)
Asiatic lion (P. Meier)
Asiatic cheetah (ICS/DoE/CACP/
caracal (M. Eslami Dehkordi)
Eurasian lynx (F. Heidari)
Pallas’s cat (F. Esfandiari)
Persian leopard (S. B. Mousavi)
Asiatic wildcat (S. B. Mousavi)
sand cat (M. R. Besmeli)
jungle cat (B. Farahanchi)
The designation of the geographical entities in this publication, and the representation of the material, do not imply the expression of any
opinion whatsoever on the part of the IUCN concerning the legal status of any country, territory, or area, or its authorities, or concerning the
delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries.
CATnews Special Issue 10 Autumn 2016
Ghoddousi et al.
ARASH GHODDOUSI1*, AMIRHOSSEIN KH. HAMIDI2, TAHER GHADIRIAN2 AND SAEEDEH
The status of wildcat in Iran -
a crossroad of subspecies?
The wildcat Felis silvestris is one of the least-known felid species of Iran with lim-
ited information on its taxonomy, distribution, ecology and threats available. In this
paper, for the first time we conducted a review on the literature and other avail-
able resources to create baseline information for future research and conservation.
Also, we gathered recent records of wildcat presence from across the country. By
analysing 57 images of this species, contrary to earlier beliefs, wildcat in Iran ap-
pears to solely belong to the Asian (ornata) subspecies. However, future genetic
analyses are essential to backup this finding and to clarify the taxonomic status
of wildcats in south-west Asia. Wildcat was recorded in 27 out of 31 provinces of
Iran, in a variety of natural habitats to the vicinity of human landscapes, except for
extremely high altitudes or deserts. Two newly established provinces (Alborz and
Qom) are suspected to have wildcat populations, but lacked any reports. However,
there have been no historical or recent records from Gilan and Mazandaran Prov-
inces, which are mainly covered by the Hyrcanian forests. The reason behind such
distribution pattern requires further investigations. Road accidents, poaching as a
retaliatory action against poultry depredation and by-catch in illegal snares are the
main reported threats to the existence of wildcats in the country. Potential threats
from shared diseases and hybridisation with domestic cats are unknown and needs
We conducted a review on the status, distri-
bution and ecology of wildcats in Iran by us-
ing scientific and grey literature, information
databases, IUCN/SSC Cat Specialist Group
library, websites and technical reports to cre-
ate baseline information for future research
and conservation. Also, we gathered recent
records of wildcat presence from provincial
offices of Department of Environment DoE
and conservation projects throughout the
country. We collected wildcat images from
biologists, DoE officers, rangers, camera
trapping projects, wildlife photographers,
zoos and museums for identification of sub-
species existing in Iran by comparison of
coat patterns. Also, images of wildcat from
neighbouring countries (Armenia, Azerbaijan,
Iraq and Turkey) were gathered. The images
were then cross checked with a number of re-
searchers specialised in wildcat biology and
coat patterns (U. Breitenmoser, A. Kitchener
& N. Yamaguchi pers. comm.). Only photos
of wildcat taken far from human landscapes
were taken into account to reduce the chance
of making any false judgments based on feral
or hybrid individuals.
The wildcat, which is known to be the an-
cestor of domestic cats, is classified as a
polytypic wild species with up to five inter-
fertile subspecies in Asia, Europe and Africa
(Driscoll et al. 2007). There is no agreement
on how to relate geographical variations to
the morphology and genetics of wildcat to
its taxonomy and systematic (Kitchener &
Rees 2009). The situation is also confusing
in Iran, since it is located at a crossroad of
distribution ranges of up to three different
subspecies of wildcats: African F. s. lybica,
Asian F. s. ornata and European F. s. silvestris
(Driscoll et al. 2007). Wildcats of Iran are sug-
gested to have different coat patterns, cate-
gorising them into different subspecies in the
past (Ziaie 2008). However, in this paper for
the first time, the status of wildcat in Iran has
been reviewed systematically and by com-
parison of 57 images of wildcats from across
the country, they all morphologically appear
to belong to the ornata subspecies or Asiatic
wildcats (U. Breitenmoser, A. Kitchener & N.
Yamaguchi, pers. comm.). This is contradic-
tory to the latest mtDNA genetic study by
Driscoll et al. (2007), which had considered
the Asian subspecies to extend to the east of
the Caspian Sea. However, in that study there
were no genetic samples from Iran. Further
genetic analyses are essential to backup
these findings, to help clarify the taxonomic
status of wildcat in south-west Asia.
Wildcat images from Iran show that they
have tawny-grey, light grey or sand-coloured
pelage, marked distinctly with spots, which is
typical for the ornata subspecies. They differ
from other wildcat subspecies mainly in their
black or red-brown spots (Fig. 1). The spots
are sometimes fused into stripes (Nowell &
Jackson 1996), especially on the flanks. Asi-
atic wildcats have small body size comparing
to the other wildcat subspecies weighing
between 3-4 kg, with females smaller than
males (Table 1; Nowell & Jackson 1996).
They have a long, tapering tail, always with
a short black tip, and with spots at the base.
The forehead has a pattern of four well-de-
veloped black bands. A small but pronounced
tuft of hair up to one cm long grows from the
tip of each ear. Paler forms of Asiatic wild-
cat live in drier areas and the darker, more
heavily spotted and striped forms occur in Fig. 1. An Asiatic wildcat from Naeen, Isfahan Province (Photo Hossein Akbari).
Cats in Iran
more humid and wooded areas. The throat
and ventral surface are whitish to light grey
to cream, often with distinct white patches
on the throat, chest and belly. Throughout
its range the Asiatic wildcat’s coat is usually
short, but the length of the fur can vary de-
pending on the age of the animal and the sea-
son of the year. Compared to domestic cat,
Asiatic wildcats have relatively longer legs.
Status, distribution and development of
The wildcat has the widest distribution among
all the felid family in the world (Macdonald &
Loveridge 2010) with the Asiatic subspecies
occurring from Iran to India in the south and
Mongolia and Russia to the east and north.
Some recent discoveries through camera trap
photos reveal the presence of the oranta sub-
species of wildcat in the Caucasus (Armania
and Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan), Iraq’s Kurd-
istan and south-east Turkey (Batur Avgan &
Igor Khorozyan pers. comm.). Nowell & Jack-
son (1996) based on Ognev (1930) suggested
that the west of Iran and the Caucasus are
the transitional zones between the three sub-
species of wildcat; however, it appears that
the transition line needs to be revised and
moved further west.
In Iran, wildcats occupy different types of
habitat, almost throughout the country and
are only absent from northern Iran (Fig. 2).
There is not enough data to clarify wheth-
er the distribution range of wildcat has
changed dramatically in the past. However,
as the wildcat is widespread throughout
the country (except the mentioned areas),
the range seems not to have been reduced
recently. Wildcat occupies the largest range
among the felids of Iran. There is no estimate
on population size of wildcat in Iran, and it
seems that it is present in suitable habitats.
There is no information on population trend.
However, Ziaie (2008) claims that the wild-
cat population has declined in most of Iran.
Poaching related to livestock predation, road
accidents and by-catch in illegal traps are
among the main causes of loss in population
of wildcat in Iran.
Habitat and extension
From arid plains to lush forests, coastal ar-
eas and mountains to vicinity of human land-
scapes, wildcats occupy different habitats
(Firouz 2005), except for extremely high alti-
tudes or deserts of Iran. However, from the
gathered data through this research, wildcat
appears to be absent from the Hyrcanian
(Caspian) forests of Gilan and Mazandaran
Provinces in the north of Iran. There is no
recent report of this species in the area and
historical data are also lacking. Surprisingly,
wildcat is present in Golestan National Park
NP and further west in Golestan Province,
which is the easternmost extent of the Hyrca-
nian forests (Fig. 3). The reason behind such
a distribution pattern needs further investiga-
tion. It has been suggested that competition
with jungle cat Felis chaus in the Caspian for-
ests is the cause of absence of this species in
this highly productive forest habitat of north-
ern Iran (B. Nussberger, pers. comm.). How-
ever, jungle cat is also present in Golestan NP
and the rest of Golestan Province. Wildcat
coexists with high number of other predator
species in a variety of habitats (e.g. brown
bear Ursus arctos, leopard Panthera pardus,
cheetah Acinonyx jubatus, wolf Canis lupus,
etc.). There is not much understanding of the
role of these species in regard to the distribu-
tion pattern of wildcat in Iran.
Wildcat presence has been confirmed in
27 out of 31 Provinces of Iran with possible
occurrence of wildcat in the two newly es-
tablished Provinces Alborz and Qom (Fig. 4).
Presence of wildcat in the remaining two
Provinces, Gilan and Mazandaran, is doubtful
and needs further research (see above). Wild-
cat can be found up to an elevation of 2,000-
3,000 (Heptner & Sludskii, 1992). Because of
the wide range of wildcat habitats in Iran, it
is difficult to identify a prime habitat for this
species in the country. It has been reported
from 39 of the 140 reserves of DoE (Darvish-
sefat 2006). However, it is likely that they
have been overlooked in many reserves. Be-
cause of its plasticity in habitat preference, it
appears that slight habitat changes might not
influence the survival of this species. Wild-
cats are often reported in the vicinity of hu-
man landscapes throughout Iran, depredating
on domestic poultry (Etemad 1985).
All the wildcat photos from the different
Provinces of Iran gathered through this re-
wildcat, wild cat
Head and body length:
Distribution in Iran:
Iran, with limited reports
from Caspian forests and
IUCN Red List:
Least Concern (2015)
Country Red List (or
by Iranian Department of
Photo S. B. Mousavi
Body part Sample size Average length (range) cm
Head and Body 12 66.5 (45-80)
Tail length 12 29.9 (25-32)
Foot 3 12.7 (12-14)
Ear 3 6.0 (5.5-6.5)
Table 1. Biometric information on wildcats in Iran.
CATnews Special Issue 10 Autumn 2016
Ghoddousi et al.
search have been identified as belonging to
the ornata subspecies. The taxonomic status
of wildcats in Iran may also justify the ab-
sence of this species in lush Caspian forests,
as the Asiatic subspecies (Asiatic steppe cat)
is commonly a steppe-dweller (Kitchener &
Ecology and behaviour characteristics
Ecological aspects of the wildcat have not
been studied in Iran. General ecological infor-
mation on this species can be derived from
other studies throughout its range. Wildcat
hunts solitarily, is active at day and night and
lives in borrows of other species (Novikov
1962). They have been observed frequently in
the daytime and appear to be highly territo-
rial (Heptner & Sludskii 1992). Female home
ranges vary with habitat, from 52.7 km2 in the
United Arab Emirates (Phelan & Silwa 2005)
to 1-2 km2 in France and Scotland (Stahl et al.
1988, Macdonald & Loveridge 2010). How-
ever, there is no original ecological data on
this subspecies throughout its range.
Mating season has been reported in vari-
ous months of the year for Asiatic wildcat
(Nowell & Jackson 1996). The gestation pe-
riod is 58-62 day with a mean litter size of
2.75 (Nowell & Jackson 1996). Life span in
captivity is 15 years (Ziaie 2008).
The diet of the wildcat hasn’t been stud-
ied in Iran and because of wide variety of
habitats for wildcat a high plasticity in prey
choice of this species is expected. From
studies of wildcats in other parts of its range,
rodents are considered as the preferred
prey: members of Dipodidae (jerboas) and
Muridae families (gerbils Gerbillinae, voles
Arvicolinae, and mice Murinae; Heptner &
Sludskii 1992) making up to 81% of its diet
(Novikov 1962). The diet also includes hares,
young ungulates, birds, insects, lizards and
snakes (Heptner & Sludskii 1992). During
the years with decline in rodent numbers,
diet constitutes of insects, reptiles and even
vegetables. They are frequently reported to
raid poultry farms in different parts of Iran
This species can be found in several private
and governmental museums of the country,
namely in Haft-Chenar, Tandureh National
Park, Shiraz Natural History, Sabzevar, etc.
On the other hand, there is not much data on
the presence of wildcat specimens in zoos
and private collections in Iran. There is only
information on the presence of one wildcat
individual in Mashhad zoo. Captive wildcats
in Iran are not included in any studbook or
Harvest and threats
There is no legal harvest of this species un-
dergoing in Iran. However, road accidents,
poaching as a retaliatory action against poul-
try depredation and by-catch in illegal traps
(mostly for Houbara bustard; Fig. 5) are the
main threats to the existence of wildcats in
the country. Wildcats also have been report-
ed to get chased and killed by shepherd dogs
in different parts of Iran.
Additionally, one of the main global threats
to wildcats is their close relative, the do-
mestic cat (Macdonald & Loveridge 2010).
Domestic cats can transmit feline diseases
to the wild animals, and more importantly,
domestic cats cat hybridize extensively with
wildcats. Such a threat may result in gradual
and cryptic extinction of the wildcats in the
wild (Macdonald & Loveridge 2010). Also,
it can lead to misidentification of ‘pure’
wildcats, which make conservation efforts
for this species difficult. There is no evalu-
ation of this threat in Iran; however, several
records of domestic cats being present in re-
serves in Iran are available.
Despite documented fur trade of this species
in the region, there is no report of such action
in Iran, since the pelt of wildcat is not consid-
ered of high value. Thus, there is little chance
that fur trappers threaten the species.
Fig. 3. A camera trap photo of an Asiatic wildcat in the Hyrcanian forest of Golestan
National Park (Photo Plan for the Land Society).
Fig. 2. A camera trap photo of an Asiatic wildcat in steppes of Touran Biosphere Reserve
(Photo Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation).
Cats in Iran
Current and future protection measures
The wildcat is listed as “Non-Protected Spe-
cies” by the Iranian DoE laws. The species is
the only member of the felid family not listed
as “Protected Species” in Iran. Considering
the increase in level of threats to wildcats,
such exclusion needs to be revised. As of
new amendments to DoE laws, illegal killing
of wildcat has a fine of ca. 2000 euro (1 euro:
The wildcat is generally an overlooked spe-
cies by most researchers and managers and
further efforts must be undertaken to raise
awareness on the status and importance of
this species. Hybridisation is a threat that
can confuse scientists and decision-makers
in how to distinguish between wild, feral and
hybrid cats and this can reduce the conserva-
tion efforts for this species. Level of hybridi-
sation needs to be evaluated as one of the
priority conservation measures for wildcats in
Iran. Regarding poaching, there is a need to
educate farmers on the significance of wild-
cats and introduce them to methods to pre-
vent wildcat attacks on poultry. Finally, there
are a number of ecological and taxonomic
questions regarding wildcats in Iran, which
need further investigations.
We sincerely thank U. Breitenmoser, N. Yamagu-
chi, B. Nussberger and A. Kitchener for providing
information for this paper. Our deep gratitude goes
to M.S. Farhadinia, I. Khorozyan, B. Avgan, H. Ak-
bari and Z. Taki for their contribution of wildcat re-
cords and photos. We thank the personnel of DoE,
especially M. Mussavi for organizing the three-day
workshop “Cats in Iran” in Karaj, Iran.
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Fig. 5. A wildcat captured in a Houbara
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1 Georg-August-University Göttingen, Germany
2 Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, Iran
3 University of Tehran, Iran