International Society For Endangered Cats

A Voice For The Wild Cats of the World

Featured Feline: African Wildcat

This is the third in a series of fact sheets on sub-species of the domestic cat ancestor, the wide ranging Wildcat (Felis silvestris.)

The African wildcat Felis silvestris lybica is found in most parts of the continent with the exclusion of the true desert areas around the Sahara and the central African rain forests belt. The species also extends up to the Arabian Peninsula, where it can be found in most coastal regions away from the dessert heartland. These wildcats can also be found up to more than 3,000 m in the mountains of Kenya, Ethiopia and Algeria.

Because of the diversity of habitat in which the African wildcat is found there is a wide range of coat coloration, varying from a light sand colour in the arid semi-desert and grassland areas to a darker grey/brown in the more forested locations. Markings also vary, from tabby stripes to faint spots and are again broadly associated with habitat types. The tail always has a black tip, and the bottom of the paws are black. A small tuft of hair grows from the tip of each ear.

Generally the African species of wildcat are of slighter build compared to the European wildcat, have a rather more pointed tail and show a characteristic reddish tint to the fur behind the ears.

Another strking characteristic is their long legs. When the wildcat is sitting upright, its long front legs raise its body into an almost vertical position. This pose, which is almost impossible for domestic cats, can be seen in ancient Egyptian bronze mummy cases and tomb paintings.

African wildcats are primarily nocturnal, especially in very hot environments or next to settled areas. They may also be active in early morning and late afternoon.

Throughout their range rodent species form the main part of the African wildcat’s diet and include mice, rats and gerbils – other prey species include scrub hare and rock rabbits, insects, scorpions, spiders, birds and small reptiles. African wildcats seldom scavenge on carrion.

There are no density estimates available for the African wildcat, but given their flexible food habits and wide range of ecological conditions and ability to survive near humans, the species is probably not in immediate danger.

As with the European wildcat, the greatest threat to the African species is that of hybridisation with the large populations of feral and domestic cats. Male feral cats have a competitive advantage over male wildcats in access to breeding females, due to their bigger size and larger numbers. It is increasingly likely that pure strains of African wildcat will be found only in protected areas remote from human habitation.

Conservationists are suggesting possible solutions to the problem include captive breeding programs to maintain a known base of pure bred animals for study and possible re-introduction, and management of feral domestic cat populations in areas where the wildcat is at most risk.


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