Southern African Wildcat : Recently recognised subspecies


Southern African Wildcat

One of the five subspecies of the Old World wildcats Southern African wildcat (Felis silvestris cafra) in the past identified with the African wildcat. Native to southern and south-eastern Africa it has only recently been recognised as a distinct subspecies. Earlier it was considered conspecific with the African or Near Eastern wildcat (F. s. lybica) found to the north of the Sahara. The current division of subspecies is based on genetic data. Morphological evidence suggests the break between the two African subspecies to occur in the south-east, in the area of Tanzania and Mozambique.

In English the cat is known as the bush cat; in Afrikaans as vaakboskat; in Swahili as kaka mwiwkimbum, or kaka pori. It has many other names in other African languages.


The cat is quite similar in appearance to domestic cat, although its legs are proportionately longer and the feet are jet black underneath. Tail is ringed with black and has a black tip; throat and chin are white while the chest is by and large paler than the rest of the body. Body length is 85–100 cm; shoulder height 35 cm; and weight range 2.5–6.0 kg. The most distinguishable characteristic of Felis silvestris cafra is its rich reddish-brown colour of the backs of the large ears, over the belly and on the back legs. There are two colour phases — iron-grey with black and whitish speckling and tawny-grey with less black and more buffy speckling. The body has vertical stripes, which vary from faint to quite distinct. Cat’s skull is small, broad and highly arched and relatively lightly built, with a short muzzle, which is a result of the reduction in the nasal cavity and the jaw length.

Distribution and habitat

Widely distributed throughout Africa south of equator, Southern African wildcat does not occur along the Namibian coast. It tolerates a wide range of habitats that provide some sort of cover.

Ecology and behavior

Southern African wildcats are secretive and almost entirely nocturnal with home ranges are clearly urine-marked. They rest during the day under cover, such as underbrush, reedbeds or clumps of tall grass and rocky hillsides. If suitable cover is not available the cat uses roots of trees, high-standing grain crops and abandoned burrows of other animals. These highly territorial cats are solitary in nature and come together only for mating and raising the young. Though they are adaptable predators, but prefer to hunt small rodents. They are able to change their diet according to seasonal and long-term prey abundances and availability. They have been observed taking other small reptiles, mammals, birds, amphibians, even insects and other invertebrates. The largest preys they can take include birds up to the size of guineafowl, hares and springhares.

These cats have very good sense of hearing and while hunting they stalk their prey. As the prey comes within reach they rush in or pounce to make a kill with a bite on the back of the neck.


As Felis silvestris cafra is closely related to domestic cat (Felis silvestris catus), the main threat to the survival of the wild subspecies in its pure form is its tendency to interbreed with domestic cats anywhere near human habitations. This interbreeding is so frequent and common that it has become very difficult to find pure-bred Southern African wildcats anywhere near areas of human settlement. Consequently, today the species is not considered threatened but if this hybridization continues the pure-bred wildcats may cease to exist. Other threats include persecution by hunters and local farmers, as well as habitat loss.

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