FIELD GUIDE Animal Directory

CATS

Secretive and solitary, cats belong to the family Felidae and are the most efficient killers among carnivores. Also the most strictly carnivorous, they feed exclusively on other warm-blooded creatures, from sparrows and mice to buffaloes and giraffes. Although they differ greatly in coloration and size, all cats have a similar body plan to their domestic counterpart, with an elongated body, long tail, small head, sensitive whiskers, prominent canine teeth and keen, bifocal vision. Much wild felid behaviour will be familiar to the average cat owner.

TAXONOMY

Most of South Africa’s felid species are small to medium-sized cats of the genera Felis, Caracal and Leptailurus. Big cats of the genus Panthera, including lion and leopard, have a larynx modification that enables them to roar, while the cheetah, of the genus Acinonyx, is the only felid with claws that are not fully retractable – a characteristic tailored to its specialist pursuit of sprinting.

FIELD GUIDE Animal Directory

Cheetah (VU)

Species Acinonyx jubatus Seen Phinda, Kruger (central region), Sabi Sands

This large spotted felid has a streamlined build, small head and unique non-retractable claws. The world’s fastest runner, it is capable of accelerating from standstill to a speed of 115 km/h (72 mph) in 4 seconds. Where most feline predators combine hunting with scavenging, the cheetah feeds exclusively on fresh meat. It is also unusual in that it hunts by day as well as at dusk. Less solitary than most cats, the cheetah is often seen in pairs or small groups – either male coalitions of up to three brothers, or a female with cubs. Unlike the true big cats, it cannot roar. Instead, its most common vocalization is a high-pitched, bird-like twitter known as “yipping”. The cheetah has suffered a massive range retraction, and is now practically restricted to sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Iran.

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FIELD GUIDE Animal Directory

African Wild Cat (LC)

Species Felis silvestris Seen Sabi Sands, Kgalagadi, Kruger

This small, elusive felid is closely related to its much rarer European counterpart. DNA evidence suggests that it is the sole wild ancestor of the domestic cat – and indeed it looks much like a domestic tabby, but with longer legs. A versatile hunter of rodents, birds and insects, it is the most widely distributed of all African predators, absent only from rainforest interiors and deserts. Its genetic integrity is under increasing threat as a result of interbreeding with feral domestic cats.

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FIELD GUIDE Animal Directory

Black-Footed Cat (VU)

Species Felis nigripes Seen Kgalagadi, Pilanesberg

Endemic to southern Africa, this tiny cat is associated with sandy, semiarid habitats, where it is very seldom seen. At a glance, it could be confused with the African wild cat, but the black-footed cat is much smaller, has shorter legs, and is heavily spotted as opposed to faintly striped (it is also known as the small spotted cat). A nocturnal hunter, it preys mainly on small mammals such as gerbils, mice and elephant shrews.

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FIELD GUIDE Animal Directory

Caracal (LC)

Species Caracal caracal Seen Kgalagadi, Augrabies Falls

The largest of Africa’s “small cats”, the caracal resembles the Eurasian lynx. It has a fairly uniform tan coat, with a paler belly, and long tufted ears whose dark coloration is referred to in Turkish as karakulak (black ear), from which the cat gets its name. Because of this tufting, the caracal is exceptionally sharp of hearing, even by felid standards. Active at night, this agile carnivore is a versatile hunter and is particularly skilled at taking birds in flight.

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FIELD GUIDE Animal Directory

Serval (LC)

Species Leptailurus serval Seen Kruger, uKhahlamba-Drakensberg, Ithala

A sleek cat with streaky (as opposed to circular) black-on-gold spots, the serval has the longest legs in relation to body size of any felid, and very large ears – adaptations that help it to locate prey in its preferred habitat of tall grassland. It feeds mainly on small mammals and birds, pouncing with a spectacular high spring. The serval is the most readily seen of the smaller felids, especially during the first 30 minutes after sunrise.

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