The African wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica), is wildcat subspecies which is found across North Africa and extends around the periphery of the Arabian Peninsula to the Caspian Sea. Also called Near Eastern wildcat, it is a common and widely distributed species. Its distributional range is accompanied by a very broad habitat tolerance.
In deserts, like Sahara, it is thinly distributed, and is found especially in association with hill and mountain country, such as the Hoggar. Listed as Least Concern in 2002 by IUCN, African wildcats occur sporadically from Morocco through Libya, Algeria, Tunisia and into Egypt. It is widely distributed across the savannas of West Africa from Mauritania on the Atlantic seaboard, eastwards to the Horn of Africa, Sudan and Ethiopia; southwards it is present in all East and southern African countries.
The population in Sardinia was introduced from Near East and is traditionally allocated to the African wildcat. Those found on the Mediterranean islands of Sicily, Corsica and Crete are considered to be the European wildcats.
Evolution and domestication
It is believed that the wildcat subspecies diverged some 230,000 years ago. Based on a mitochondrial DNA study of 979 domestic and wild cats from Asia, Africa and Europe, Felis silvestris lybica is thought to have separated from European wildcat approximately 173,000 years ago and from the Asian subspecies F.s. ornata and the Southern African F.s. cafra about 131,000 years ago. Wildcats (Felis silvestris lybica) were domesticated about 10,000 years ago in the Middle East where African wildcats are currently found. Remains of a domestic cat were found in a human grave in Cyprus, which was about 9,500 years old.
Domestic cats of today came from at least five “Mitochondrial Eves”. Scientists are of the opinion that none of the other subspecies of Felis silvestris contributed to the domestic breed, and many of those subspecies’ mtDNA is being swamped by interbreeding with feral cats.
African wildcat’s fur usually have light sandy grey colour, but sometimes it has a pale yellow or reddish hue. Feet are dark brown to black. Two dark rings are on the forelegs, while the hind legs are striped. Ears can vary from reddish to grey, with long light yellow hairs around the pinna. Stripes found around the face are dark ochre to black: two of them running horizontally on the cheek, while four to six across the throat. A dark stripe runs along the back. Flanks are lighter, and the belly is whitish. Pale vertical stripes on the sides often dissolve into spots.
Male wildcats from North Africa have body length of 47–59.7 cm (19–23.5 inches) with a 26.7–36.8 cm (10.5–14.5 in) long tail. Females are little shorter with body length of 40.6–55.8 cm (16.0–22.0 in) and a 24.1–33.7 cm (9.5–13.3 in) long tail. Males found in Yemen measured 46–57 cm (18–22 in) with an addition of 25–32 cm (9.8–13 in) long tail; females measured 50–51 cm (20–20 in) body length with 25–28 cm (9.8–11 in) long tail. Both the sexes ranged in weight from 3.2 to 4.5 kg (7.1 to 9.9 lb).
It was Reginald Innes Pocock, a British zoologist, who described African wildcats as a separate species from the European wildcats. Difference was based on the inconspicuous stripes on the nape and shoulders, a not so sharply defined stripe on the spinal area and by the slender tail, which is cylindrical, less bushy and more tapering. Ears are normally tipped with a small tuft and the fur is shorter than of the European wildcat.
Ecology and behaviour
African wildcats are active mainly during the night and twilight. During daytime they usually hide in the bushes or in trees. They prey mainly on rodents, like rats and mice and other small mammals. They have also been observed eating amphibians, reptiles, birds and insects. Hunting strategies include approaching the prey slowly, and then attacking by pouncing on it as soon as it is within reach, which is usually about a meter. When confronted, they raise their hairs to make themselves look larger in order to intimidate the opponent or the intruder.
Male’s territory overlaps with that of a few females, which he defends against the intruders. Female gives birth usually in burrows or hollow in the ground or tree base. Kittens are usually born in the wet season, when food availability is in abundance. Gestation period lasts between 56 and 69 days.
Litter may contain two to six kittens, with three being an average. Kittens are born blind, their eyes open within a week or ten days. They stay with their mother for five to six months and become sexually mature in six months.
Felis silvestris is included on CITES Appendix II..
Currently Alley Cat Rescue is the only organization, which has a program specifically aimed at conserving this cat and reducing what some refer to as genetic pollution by domestic cats.