International Society For Endangered Cats

A Voice For The Wild Cats of the World

Featured Feline: Black-footed Cat

Weighing just 3-4 lbs as an adult, the tiny Black-footed cat Felis nigripes is likely the smallest wild cat species in the world. It is found only in the short grasslands of southern Africa, where it is rare and classified as Vulnerable (IUCN 2008). It is not found in the driest and sandiest parts of the Namib and Kalahari Deserts.

Stalking... Photo copyright A. Sliwa

Knowledge of its behaviour and ecology comes from a decade long study on the Benfontein Game Farm in South Africa, where more than 20 cats were radio-collared and tracked. Researchers had over 17,000 fixes and totalled 1,600 hours of observation on radio-collared and habituated cats.

Living in an arid area with a scarce prey base means Black-footed cats must cover large distances each night. Adults travel an average of 5.23 miles per night – more distance than the African wildcat despite their smaller size. The largest distance travelled by a Black-footed cat was 9.07 miles in a single night.

An incredibly tenacious little cat, it is reported to attack small sheep four times its weight, hanging onto the neck until the jugular vein is pierced. The natives have a legend claiming the ‘Ant Hill Tiger’ can bring down giraffe. In reality, as an opportunistic hunter it feeds on a variety of mice, birds, insects, reptiles and eggs.

Researcher Dr. Alex Sliwa (personal communication) says the biggest prey he watched one of their collared females attack was a male ostrich, weighing 180 pounds. She stalked this black mountain of feathers as he sat on his nest, creeping up to him flat on the ground for more than half an hour. When she was ready to pounce, the giant bird got up, revealing monstrous feet longer than the cat’s body, and towering for a second 6.5 feet above the cat, he bolted in a cloud of dust. Standing bedraggled, the cat shook her head in frustration and trotted off.

During the first six years of the study, 1725 prey items were consumed by 17 free-ranging habituated Black-footed cats. Small mammals constituted the most important prey (39%),followed by larger mammals (17%) and small birds (16%). Small rodents like the large-eared mouse, captured 595 times by both sexes, were particularly important during the reproductive season for females with kittens. Black-footed cats captured smaller prey on average than African wildcats, although both captured approximately the same number (12-13) of prey species per night.

Kitten peeking from the safety of the den. Photo copyright A Sliwa.

One small Black-footed cat can consume 3,000 rodents each year. It has also been known to eat dead springbok lambs, although it doesn’t actually kill them. Larger males can take adult Cape hare which weigh approximately the same as the cat. It has also been observed eating eggs, crushing them gently between its jaws, then licking the contents clean. This tiny cat can get its moisture requirements from prey, but will drink water if it is available.

Strictly nocturnal, the Black-footed cat shelters during the heat of the day in termite mound holes or abandoned burrows. Activity in the wild varies with the length of the night, with the cat leaving and returning to its den within 30 minutes of sunset and sunrise. Hunting techniques include waiting up to 40 minutes at rodent burrows, or flushing nesting birds by walking very fast through the grass. Enemies include venomous snakes, jackals and owls.

The Black-footed cat faces several man-made threats. Overgrazing by livestock is prevalent throughout its range, leading to a reduced prey base. Indiscriminate poisoning of carcasses to kill Caracals Caracal caracal and jackals also affect the Black-footed cat since it readily scavenges. Poisoning of locusts which would be eaten by the cats also poses a serious danger. Cats also fall victim to dogs, used to chase or dig out jackals during problem animal operations. Interbreeding with feral domestic cats can dilute the genetics of the Black-footed cat, an increasing threat to a number of small wild cats.

ISEC Canada is proud to have supported the field research project on this tiniest of felines since its inception. Many questions have been answered, but there is still so much more to learn, and we need your help.

It’s a tough world out there when you only weigh 3 pounds! Please consider contributing to the future of the black-footed cat by making a donation today.

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