Other Names
chat ganté, chat sauvage d’Afrique (French)
Falbkatze (German)
gato montés, gato silvestre (Spanish)

Sub-Saharan Africa:
vaalboskat (Afrikaans: South Africa)
ye-dw dimmet (Amharic: Ethiopia)
kongo diakouma, yacoumawara (Bambara)
larrouye (Bornouan)
batou ana guesh, guetté (Chad)
!ores (Hei//kum Bushman: Namibia)
ochwi, ochawhi (Herero: Namibia)
nyau (Kikuyu: Kenya)
kaka pori, kimburu, kaka mwitu (Kiswahili)
gamsi lala (Kotoko)
/nua (Ju/hoan Bushman: Botswana, Namibia)
mbaki (Luganda)
ogwang burra (Luo)
igola (Ndebele: Zimbabwe)
moula (Sara)
phahê, tibê (Setswana: Botswana)
nhiriri (Shona: Zimbabwe)
wunndu ale (Wolof)
mpaka, mbodla (Zulu: South Africa)

  • Description and Behavior

  • Biology

  • Habitat and Distribution

  • Population Status

  • Protection Status

  • Occurrence in Protected Areas

  • Principal Threats

  • References

  • Action Planning

  • North Africa and South-West Asia:
    sooner mousch or mesch (Arabic: Sahara region)
    emschisch boudrar, akriw, mousch abrani (Berber)
    biss burree (Saudi Arabia)
    kadees el khala (Sudan)
    bisad car, jifa, mukulel dur, dinaad dur, dinad dibadeed (Somalia)
    tarda-tarhda, arheda, aghda (Tamahaq)

    Description and Behavior
    The wildcat has a very large geographic range, and varies locally in appearance. In general, from north to south there is a gradation of coat thickness, intensity of ground color, and amount of “tabby” markings (Robinson 1991). Pocock (1951) recognized 26 subspecies. These subspecies are not considered in this document, which follows the taxonomy of Weigel (1961) and Hemmer (1978a) in recognizing four groups of Felis silvestris: the forest cats (silvestris group) of Europe, the Caucasus and Asia Minor; the steppe cats (ornata group) of South and Central Asia (see EURASIA); the tawny cats (lybica group) of Africa and the Middle East; and F.s. catus, the domestic cat. The status of the lybica group throughout its range is presented here under the common name “African wildcat”.

    The lybica group is the most widespread, and these cats differ from the European forms by their lighter build, less distinct markings, and thin, tapering tails. The African wildcat is very similar in size and appearance to the domestic cat, and the two can be difficult to distinguish in the field. In southern Africa, males weigh an average of 5 kg (n=42), and females approximately 4 kg (n=36) (Smithers 1971, Stuart 1981). The background color of its coat ranges from reddish to sandy yellow to tawny brown to grey, and is typically marked with faint tabby stripes and spots. A characteristic feature of this group is a reddish or rusty-brown tint to the backs of the ears (Skinner and Smithers 1990, Harrison and Bates 1991, Dragesco-Joffé 1993).

    Wildcats are primarily nocturnal, especially in very hot environments or in proximity to settled areas, but are also active in early morning and late afternoon. Studies have shown rodents to be the major prey species throughout southern Africa (Zimbabwe: Smithers and Wilson 1979; Botswana: Smithers 1971; Karoo region & Central Namib Desert: Stuart 1977; South Africa: Stuart 1982, Palmer and Fairall 1988; Natal prov., South Africa: Rowe-Rowe 1978; western Cape coast, South Africa: Avenant 1993). This prey preference is presumably similar throughout their range (Rosevear 1974, Kingdon 1977, de Smet 1989, Harrison and Bates 1991). A variety of birds, reptiles, and amphibians are also taken, as well as other mammals, including young antelope (Smithers and Wilson 1979). Insects and arachnids, including solifuges and scorpions, are frequently taken, perhaps in relation to seasonal rodent scarcity (Smithers 1971, Stuart 1977, Harrison and Bates 1991). Wildcats seldom scavenge carrion (Gasperetti et al. 1986, Skinner and Smithers 1990).

    The African wildcat is generally recognized as the ancestor of the domestic cat (Pocock 1907a). Unlike feral domestic cats, which sometimes live in large groups or “colonies”, African wildcats are solitary. Liberg and Sandell (1988) point out that domestic cats tend to form colonies in the presence of clumped, rich food resources (such as garbage dumps), remaining solitary where prey is more evenly and thinly distributed. It is interesting that in captivity, female African wildcats have assisted mothers in provisioning of young with food (Smithers 1983), a behavior observed in feral domestic cat colonies. However, preliminary results from a radiotelemetry study in Saudi Arabia indicate that wildcats persisted in solitary habits while feral domestic cats formed groups around a garbage dump. This suggests that the domestication process may be the most important factor underlying the sociality of feral cats (Macdonald et al. 1991), perhaps leading to a broadening of the diet to include scraps and carrion.

    Birth season (W):
    in southern Africa, chiefly in the summer from Sept-Mar (Skinner and Smithers 1990). In Saudi Arabia, Harrison and Bates (1991) report the capture of a pregnant female in Oman in Feb. In the northern Sahara, breeding takes place from Jan-Mar (Dragesco-Joffé 1993)

    Gestation (C): 56-63 days (Green 1991)

    Litter size:
    (W): 3.4 (n=7, range 2-5) (Botswana: Smithers 1971);
    (C): 1-5

    Gestation (C): 98-104 days (Jones 1977, Freeman 1975)

    Age at sexual maturity (C): 11 months

    Longevity (C): up to 15 years (Green 1991)

    Habitat and Distribution
    The African wildcat has a very broad habitat tolerance. It appears to be absent only from tropical rainforest: reports from this habitat type may refer to domestic cats, or possibly to hybrids (e.g., a recent report from north-western Congo [M. Agnanga in litt. 1993]). It is thinly distributed throughout the Nubian, Saharan and Arabian deserts, where it is generally restricted to mountains and dry watercourses (Gasperetti et al. 1986, Kingdon 1990, Skinner and Smithers 1990, K. de Smet in litt. 1993). Wildcats range up to >3,000 m in the mountains of Kenya, Ethiopia and Algeria (Kingdon 1977, Yalden et al. 1980, Dragesco-Joffé' 1993, K. de Smet in litt. 1993).

    Density is expected to vary widely with prey availability. Mendelssohn (1989) estimated a density of one individual per km2 in open oak forest on hilly, rocky ground in Israel. Fuller et al. (1988) reported the home range of a male African wildcat near Nakuru, Kenya as 4.3 km2.

    Population Status
    Global: Category 5c
    Regional (Sub-Saharan Africa): Category 5
    Regional (North Africa/Middle East): Category 5
    IUCN: Not Listed

    While F. silvestris is the most abundant of the felids, widespread hybridization with domestic cats is leading to the increasing rarity of pure wildcats (see below).

    Protection Status
    Protection Status: CITES Appendix II

    National Legislation:
    Not protected over most of its range

    Hunting Prohibited:
    Algeria, Israel, Mauritania, Morocco, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Tunisia

    Hunting Regulated:
    Angola, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Senegal, Somalia, Tanzania, Togo

    No Legal Protection:
    Benin, Botswana, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Lebanon, Lesotho, Malawi, Mali, Namibia, Oman, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Sudan, Swaziland, Uganda, United Arab Emirates, Zaïre, Zambia, Zimbabwe

    No Information:
    Burundi, Chad, Djibouti, Guinea, Iraq, Jordan, Libya, Qatar, Syria, Western Sahara, Yemen
    (IUCN Environmental Law Centre 1986; R. Daly, R. Khan, I. Nader, A. Serhal, K. de Smet in litt. 1993)

    Occurrence in Protected Areas
    It is increasingly likely that pure strains of African wildcat will be found only in protected areas remote from human habitation. Those areas which may possibly protect populations of African wildcats isolated from feral domestic cats are marked with an asterisk in Figure 8

    Principal Threats
    The primary threat facing the African wildcat throughout its range is hybridization with domestic cats (see also discussions under EURASIA). Hybridization has been taking place over a long period of time, particularly in the north of its range where domestic cats arose thousands of years ago. Mendelssohn (1989) believes that feral male cats have a competitive advantage over male wildcats in access to estrous females, due to both their larger size and their occurrence, in many places, at higher densities. Hybridization in captivity has shown that distinctive characteristics of the African wildcat, such as its long legs and reddish-backed ears, are lost (Smithers 1983), although hybrids have been found with red-backed ears (M. Lindeque pers. comm. 1993). Smithers (1986) believes it inevitable that hybridization "will lead to the virtual extinction of the African wildcat as we know it at present."

    Feral cats are found throughout the wildcat’s range. Smithers (1986) reports that, in South Africa, it is now impossible to find pure wildcats anywhere in the vicinity of settlements where there are domestic cats. Smithers (1971) comments on hybrids found in Botswana with white legs and white patches on their bodies, and G. Mills (in litt. 1991) reported destroying such a specimen in the Kalahari at least 75 km from the nearest human habitation. J. Gasperetti (in litt. 1993) reports that a geologist found a litter of domestic cat kittens in the Rub el Khali (Empty Quarter: uninhabited sand desert of the south-eastern Arabian peninusla), hundreds of kilometres from either water or the nearest Bedouin encampment. Several breeding programmes have been started to conserve pure strains of wildcat in captivity, but the strongest hope for survival in the wild of pure wildcats lies in controlling feral cat numbers in remote protected areas.

    Mendelssohn (1989) also attributes the rarity of African wildcats in Israel to their susceptibility to feline panleukopenia, transmitted by feral cats, which are generally resistant.

    © 1996 IUCN - The World Conservation Union