International Society For Endangered Cats

A Voice For The Wild Cats of the World

Caturday Feature: African Golden Cat

®Laila Bahaa-el-din and Panthera

The African Golden Cat Profelis aurata remains an enigma in the cat world. About twice the size of a domestic cat, they are very sturdy, powerful animals, with stout, relatively short legs and large paws. There are two colour phases: chestnut-red/fawn and silvery/dark slate-grey, of which the grey phase is often called the silver cat. Both red and grey phases occur in the same areas, and a few melanistic specimens have been recorded.

The underparts are whitish, and the belly and inner sides of the limbs can have variable amounts of dark spotting. There are four different coat patterns found throughout the Golden cat’s range: spotted all over; spots on the back and neck indistinct; no pattern except on flanks; and no pattern except on belly. Their head is relatively small with a fairly large muzzle, irises of green to Golden brown. Small white patches are visible above their eyes, especially at the inner corners.  The backs of the small, rounded ears are black and some individuals have white patches around the eyes and cheeks. The tail is  about one third of the head and body length, and has a dark line on the upper side, sometimes with distinct rings.

Distribution

African Golden cats are the only forest-dependent wild cats in Africa, yet remain almost entirely unstudied. Aside from a few projects investigating diet, current knowledge is largely based on captive individuals and occasional sightings in the wild.

These cats usually occur in moist equatorial rainforests, but have been found to occasionally inhabit drier woodlands as long as they are near water. They are also common at high altitudes up to 3,600 metres in mountainous areas where they live in deciduous rain forest, bamboo forests, and along water courses extending into the drier, more open areas. Golden cats apparently adapt well to logged areas, as destruction of the canopy favours the dense secondary undergrowth they prefer. Edge environments generally contain high rodent densities, and thus may be preferred.

Ecology 

While thought to be crepuscular and nocturnal, a recent camera trap study in Gabon (2011) found the African Golden Cats to be active at all times of day and night, and the majority of photographs were obtained during the day. Peaks in Golden Cat activity corresponded weakly with periods of reduced Leopard Panthera pardus activity, with increased activity during the hottest part of the afternoon when Leopards are least active.

They have been seen resting in the lower branches of trees during the day and are thus thought to be partially arboreal. However, the short tail is difficult to explain in this regard since most arboreal cats have a long tail that they use as a counterbalance when climbing.

In the Congo and Central African Republic, scat studies revealed rodents and squirrels were the main prey species, followed by small antelope.

Reproduction

No dens with kittens have been described from the wild and very few have been raised in captivity. A litter of one to three, usually one or two, kittens are born in a hollow tree den, rocky crevice, or thick vegetation after about 78 days. Kittens weigh 180 – 235 grams at birth and sometimes have small ear tufts. They grow fairly rapidly with their eyes opening in six days, and are weaned between three and four months, at which time they weigh 2.5 – 3 kg. They reach sexual maturity between 11-18 months of age, and have lived up to 12 years in captivity.

Conservation

Although the species has been known for 200 years, it wasn’t until 2002 that the first photograph of a wild African Golden Cat was obtained. In parts of central and western Africa, African Golden cats rank highly in local religious beliefs. When asked about the cat by researchers, natives are reluctant to talk about them or even to acknowledge that they exist.

Baka pygmy tribesmen value their tail as a talisman to protect them when they are hunting elephants, and the skin is traditionally incorporated into tribal robes. They are known locally as the ‘leopard’s brother’ because the two cats are often found in the same area.

They are Africa’s least known felid, but may be less rare than is generally thought due to the density of their habitat. Due to their adaptability, the species is not restricted to primary forest and also does well in secondary forest.

Loss of habitat is the main threat to the population; they have lost about 44% of their former range. The forests of west Africa have been heavily damaged by human activity, and roads built into the forest by logging operations provide easier access for the bush meat trade, which figures largely in the region’s economy. This trade leads to local depletion of prey species, and the cats are occasionally caught in traps set for other animals. There seems to be little direct hunting of African Golden cats but skins are occasionally sold in local markets for ritual purposes, alongside medicinal herbs and fetishes.

African Golden Cats share much of their range with the larger Leopard. Research studies on this big cat have found that when their larger prey species are less abundant, they switch to smaller prey, thus directly competing with the Golden Cat for food resources. A study of the Leopard in Gabon also found African Golden cat remains in 5 of 196 Leopard scats. Conversely, the eradication of the Leopard from Bwindi National Park in Uganda has led to the African Golden Cat being the dominant carnivore in that area.  African Golden Cats are classed as Near Threatened (2008).

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