African wild cats are the ancestors of those gorgeous, slinky felines that inhabit our homes. In the savannahs and bushveld of South Africa, they live fiercely independent and nocturnal lives. And look out for the similar small spotted cat – a ferocious little creature with the heart of a lion.

Did you know?

Small spotted cat mothers summon their kittens with a distinctive 'ah-ah-ah' call while bobbing their heads.

 

It’s dark and in the Landrover's spotlight you glimpse something small and striped. Then a moment of anticlimax as you realise it’s a cat. What is a tabby doing in the wilds?

But look again. You might be witness to a very rare creature – an African wild cat.

It resembles a domestic tabby because this is its wild ancestor.

This is the same cat that was tamed in the Middle East nearly 10 000 years ago. But you’d be hard-pressed to know the difference.

Pure African wild cats have certain very specific physical characteristics that distinguish them from cross-breeds or domestic cats.

African wild cats have sandy-greyish stripes over their bodies, with 2 distinct stripes circling their necks and a dark stripe running down the middle of their necks and backs. They have black-tipped tails and the undersides of their feet are always black.

But the surest sign that you are looking at a purebred African wild cat is the bright orange or rufous colour on the back of its ears.

In South Africa, they are usually a little larger than domestic tabbies, with long legs that give them a characteristic ‘upright’ posture when sitting.

Like your average domestic cat, they mostly eat mice and shrews, along with snakes, lizards, birds, frogs and insects. They are particularly good at ambushing birds at waterholes, often tearing doves from the air.

African wild cats are widespread and wouldn’t be in any way rare were it not for the fact that they interbreed so readily with domestic cats.

But if the cat you’re seeing is uncommonly small, broad-faced and ferocious, you might be lucky enough to be viewing an even rarer specimen – the very elusive black-footed cat, now officially known as the small spotted cat.

This is the smallest cat in Africa and the 2nd smallest in the world, seldom weighing much more than 1.2kg. It is a beautiful cinnamon-buff colour, heavily spotted and barred with dark fur. The ears are dark-striped and are far rounder than those of a wildcat.

Even though it’s so small, the black-footed cat is known to catch creatures its own weight or even heavier, like korhaans or spring hares. But it mostly eats beetle larvae, rodents, small birds and reptiles.

It’s known in Afrikaans as the miershooptier ('anthill tiger') for its habit of sheltering in excavated termite mounds.

Travel tips & Planning info

Who to contact

Cat Conservation Trust
Marion Holmes
Tel: +27 (0)48 881 2814
Fax: +27 (0)86 661 4145
Email: info@karoocats.org

How to get here

You may see an African wild cat or small spotted cat in a provincial or national park, but your best chance is at the highly regarded breeding and research centre, the Cat Conservation Trust, outside Cradock in the Eastern Cape. Cradock is approx. 200km north of Port Elizabeth, along the N10. Drive through Cradock as if heading onwards to Middelburg, and turn onto the R61 towards Graaff-Reinet. After about 15 minutes, turn right onto the Fish River road and turn in at the Clifton farm, which is clearly signposted.

Best time to visit

In game reserves, the best way to see nocturnal animals (apart from with a spotlight at night) is to look out for them very early on winter mornings (from May to August), when they may still be out foraging.

Around the area

Close to the Cat Conservation Trust is the Mountain Zebra National Park, 1 of the most scenic national parks in the country. You may also want to visit or stay over at the beautifully restored Tuishuise and Victoria Manor in nearby Cradock.

What will it cost

A tour around the Cat Conservation Trust will cost approx. R25 per person (accommodation costs between R260 per person and R490, depending on meal requirements).

Length of stay

A visit to the Cat Conservation Trust makes a good half-day trip. If you’re hoping to see these cats in the wild, you may be lucky or not. Many regular game reserve visitors have never seen 1, though of course there are those that have been lucky.

What to pack

Unless you’re visiting the Cat Conservation Trust, bring very warm winter gear, since you’ll be looking for African wild cats at night.

Where to stay

Mount Camdeboo, between Graaff-Reinet and Pearston in the Eastern Cape (an easy drive from Cradock), is a luxury game-lodge option where you’re likely to see African wild cats. The Cat Conservation Trust has simpler accommodation. The Mountain Zebra National Park, close to the trust and Cradock, is also a potential place to see African wild cats.