CatSG

African wildcat

Felis silvestris lybica

IUCN Red List: Least Concern

Weight: 3-8 kg
Body length: 45-80 cm
Tail length: ca. 30 cm
Longevity: up to 16 years
Litter size: 1-6 cubs

Description

The genetics of the species Felis silvestris is still not fully understood, and there is no consensus on how to relate geographic variation in the morphology and genetics, and how to genetically differentiate feral domestic cats from wildcats as they are all closely related. The latest analysis suggests that there are five subspecific groups: the African wildcat (F. s. lybica), the Asiatic wildcat (F. s. ornata), the European wildcat (F. s. silvestris) and more recently the Southern African wildcat (F. s. cafra) and the Chinese mountain cat (F. s. bieti). Another possible taxonomic classification would be to treat F. bieti, F. silvestris and F. lybica (including ornata and cafra as subspecies) as three separate species. The taxonomy of the wildcat is still debated as are the genetic differences between the wildcat subspecies and the domestic cat. The domestic cat could be classified either as F. s. catus or as a separate species F. catus based on biological processes and phlogeny.

The wildcat (F. s. lybica) was domesticated around 9,000-10,000 years ago in the Southwestern Asia. Recent investigation indicates that the origin of the domestic cat lies in Mesopotamia where the first grains were cultivated. With rising agricultural practices there was a need to protect the grains from rodents.

The wildcat is the size of a large housecat. The African wildcat has longer legs than the domestic cat giving it a more upright posture in the sitting position and a different walking form. The African wildcat’s fur is short, reddish to sandy and tawny brown to greyish coloured, typically marked with faint, unremarkable tabby stripes and spots on the body and sides. The wildcat have short muzzles with orange around the nose and white patches below the eyes. Its tail is long, and dark above with three blackish rings at the base and a dark tip. Its paw pads are black like those of the black-footed cat (Felis nigripes). The African wildcat distinguishes itself from the European one by lighter build, less distinct markings and a thin tapering tail. 

Other names

Language/Country

Name

Algeria (Tamahaq)

tarda-tarhda, arhedaa, aghda

Arabic

sooner mousch or mesch

Berber

emischisch boudrar, akriw, mousch abrani

Bournouan

larrouye

Botswana (Ju/hoan Bushman; Setswna)

/nua; phahê, tibê

Chad

Batou ana guesh, guetté

Ethiopia (Amharic)

ye-dw dimmet

French

chat ganté, chat sauvage d'Afrique

German

Falbkatze

Kenya (Kikuyu; Luo)

nyau; ogwang burra

Kiswahili

kaka pori, kimburu, kaka mwitu

Kotoko

gamsi lala

Libya (Tamahaq)

tarda-tarhda, arhedaa, aghda

Mali (Bambara)

kongo diakouma, yacoumawara

Mauritania (Wolof)

Wuundu ale

Namibia (Hei/kum Bushman; Ju/hoan Bushman)

!ores; /nua

Niger (Tamahaq)

tarda-tarhda, arhedaa, aghda

Saudi Arabia

biss burree

Sara

moula

Senegal (Wolof)

Wuundu ale

Somalia

Bisad car, jifa, mukulel dur, dinaad dur, dinad dibadeed

South Africa (Afrikaans; Zulu)

Vaalboskat; mpaka, mbodia

Spanish

gato montés, gato silvestre

Sudan

kadees el khala

Tanzania (Luo)

ogwang burra

Tamahaq

Uganda (Luganda)

mbaki

Wolof

Wuundu ale

Zimbabwe (Ndebele; Shona)

igola; nhiriri

Status and Distribution

The African wildcat is categorized as Least Concern by the IUCN Red List. However, the status of the African wildcat is not very clear as it is a cryptic species and it is sometimes difficult to distinguish it from domestic cats.

The wildcat (Felis silvestris) has a very wide distribution, found throughout most of Africa, Europe, southwest and central Asia into India, China, and Mongolia. The African wildcat occurs in wide parts of Africa and around the periphery of the Arabian Peninsula to the Caspian Sea. It is present in all east and southern African countries. In North Africa they occur discontinuously from Morocco through Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya into Egypt. In West Africa it is widely distributed from Mauritania to the Horn of Africa, Sudan and Ethiopia. 

Distribution area of the wildcat (IUCN Red List 2015).
Distribution area of the African wildcat (IUCN Red List 2015).

Habitat

The African wildcat has a very broad habitat tolerance and is found from deserts, semi deserts, savannahs, scrub grassland to open forests in hilly and rocky terrain as well as in mixed forests. It seems to be absent only from tropical rainforest. In the Nubian, Saharan and Arabian deserts, it seems to be restricted to mountains and dry watercourses. In Kenya, Ethiopia and Algeria, the African wildcat has been recorded at over 3,000 m elevation. 

Ecology and Behaviour

The African wildcat is a solitary species but can form temporary, as the feral domestic cats sometimes do, large groups comprised of a female with her offspring from several consecutive litters. It is mainly nocturnal, especially in very hot environments or in proximity to settled areas but it can also be active in early mornings or late afternoons. The African wildcat hunts primarily on the ground but it is an excellent climber. It gets its prey by stalking followed by a quick attack. Since the wildcat depends mainly on rodents, which undergo large cyclic changes in populations, it must be able to frequently produce large litters to withstand these prey base fluctuations.

The wildcat is territorial and uses scent marks for communication. In the United Arab Emirates, the home range of one female was quite large at 52.7 km². In South Africa female home ranges of 6-10 km² were recorded in the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park. The home range of one male African wildcat near the Nakuru in Kenya was 4.3 km².

The birth season in southern Africa is from September to March. In the northern Sahara breeding takes place from January to March. Gestation lastas for 56-68 days and at 9-12 months the wildcat reaches its sexual maturity. When the female is in heat, it only allows one male to be in its territory. 

African wildcat cleaning its fur.
African wildcat kitten.

Prey

The main prey species of the African wildcat are rodents such as rats, mice and voles. It also hunts insectivores, hares, rabbits, birds, insects, frogs, lizards, fish and occasionally martens, weasels, polecats, and poultry. The wildcat can also prey on young antelopes and small livestock (lambs, goat kits). It is also known to be a scavenger.

African wildcat with a freshly killed rodent.
African wildcat with its prey.

Main Threats

Hybridization with domestic cats is considered the main threat to the African wildcat. Evidence of such hybridization has been found in southern and northern Africa. Hybridization may have been taking place over a long period of time, and it is possible that nowadays very few genetically pure African wildcats exist. Pure genetic populations may only persist in protected areas far from human settlements. Feral domestic cats also compete with wildcats for prey and habitat and wildcats can suffer from disease transmitted by domestic cats.

Another threat is the loss of habitat or habitat quality due to habitat conversion into agricultural land. Wildcats are also killed by vehicles, as bycatches of predator control measures or by rodenticides. In southern Africa, they are persecuted as pests due to poultry and lamb predation. 

Conservation Efforts and Protection Status

The wildcat is included in Appendix II of CITES but it is not protected over most of its range in Africa. Hunting is prohibited in Algeria, Israel, Mauritania, Morocco, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria and Tunisia. In Angola, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Senegal, Somalia, Tanzania and Togo, hunting is regulated. There is no legal protection in 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 and Zimbabwe. No information is available for Burundi, Chad, Djibouti, Guinea, Iraq, Jordan, Libya, Qatar, Syria, Western Sahara and Yemen.

The wildcat can live also in agricultural or cultivated landscapes dominated by humans if enough rodents are available. However, such habitats are also where hybridization takes place and spreads. Therefore, it is important to identify genetically pure African wildcats and assure their protection to prevent hybridization or disease spread from domestic cats. The differentiation between wild and domestic cat is however complicated and difficult to do. An International Studbook aims to record the captive individuals of the subspecies distributed in Oman and the United Arab Emirates, the Gordon’s wildcat (F. s. gordoni), which is threatened via hybridisation and human encroachment of the desert environment.