on 27 November 2002
One of the few recent books that has dared to take up the challenge of producing a good single volume (452 pages) on *all* cat species, there is an inevitability that this volume will be compared with the likes of Guggisberg's "Wild Cats of the World" (1975).
In approach, the Sunquists' have chosen to create a more "scientific" presentation than Guggisberg; focusing less upon anecdotes and narrative, and including much summary information from previously published researches, many of which are indeed difficult to obtain first-hand.
In many areas, of course, this shows how *little* we actually know about many felid species: the entry for the flat-headed cat, for example, is brief and contains little new information from the last 27 years.
For each species, we are given a color image (bound in two signatures), one or more black and white pictures as a chapter heading, followed by a more-or-less detailed species account which has a core format (description, distribution, ecology, behavior and status in the wild) to which is added various other information, as is available.
Given the number of sources available in many cases, these accounts are well written and fully referenced within each species' chapter; a major plus for further researches.
Further chapters on study and conservation, the introduction ("What is a Cat"?) and appendices on communication, reproduction, trade and status (IUCN/CITES) seem to be somewhat "tagged on".
The first and last of these would be ably complemented by the IUCN's "Wild Cats: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan" (also available free-of-charge, on-line), whilst Andrew Kitchener's "The Natural History of the Wild Cats" and Paul Leyhausen's "Cat Behavior" would be of considerable interest with regards the other aspects; albeit there is, as yet, no single-volume reference work covering all felid-related topics in detail.
On the down side, the Sunquist's book appears to show a wilful and selective neglect of work carried out on a "non-scientific" basis. This is perhaps most obvious to the layperson in the section on translocation and reintroduction which totally fails to mention the Adamson's ("Born Free"), Billy Singh ("Tiger Haven"), and others. Given that issues surrounding the reintroduction of human-socialised big cats are of importance, it is surprising that such discussions are totally avoided, here.
Other worries include careless interpretation (such as the family tree of wild cats on page 14, suggesting that many felid lineages diverged from the same common ancestor at a single instant in time) and the avoidance of scientific works not published in Western sources. The dustwrapper inscription suggests that the authors "have spent more than a decade gathering information about cats from every available source", yet on tigers alone they totally miss key books and papers in the Indian literature on man-eating (Chakrabarti), white and other color variations (Desai, L.A.K. Singh), olfactory communication and social behavior (Choudhury, Sankhala, etc.) and ethnographic impact/human interaction (Chakrabarti, Niyogi, A. Singh, etc.). The same absence of references to primary Russian sources (for the Amur tiger) is also noted, and similarly for other species (such as the only worthwhile book on the Asiatic lion, Srivastav's "Asiatic Lion: On the brink").
It is also unclear what the authors have to benefit from the assertion (in the Introduction) that 25 years ago, "the biology of even easily recognizable species... was virtually unknown, and nothing was known about what they needed in terms of space and food". Despite the fact that our knowledge has increased greatly in recent years, a review of the available literature from the 1960s through mid-1970s proves this statement to be largely false: indeed, references to these "non-existent" sources are made throughout the Sunquists' book....
On balance, then, very good reading and a most worthwhile addition to any wild cat reference library, albeit our understanding of these intriguing and fascinating animals is in a continual state of flux and it can be dangerous to place *too* much credence in any single volume written at a given date.