The big cats of southern Africa's golden savannahs are world-renowned. The lion and the leopard are part of the continent's famous Big Five, while the cheetah is undoubtedly one of the most sought-after safari sightings. However, Africa is also home to seven smaller cats - some of which are so elusive or endangered that very few people even know of their existence. They are also some of the continent's most beautiful creatures, and in this article, we take a look at what makes Africa's forgotten felines so special.
Serval (Leptailurus serval)
The serval is a slender, graceful cat found on the open grasslands of southern Africa. There are eighteen subspecies, with a small population remaining in the North African nation of Morocco. They are medium-sized cats, with an average floor-to-shoulder height of 24 inches/ 60 centimeters. As well as a beautiful black-spotted coat, servals have small heads, oversized ears, and the longest legs of any cat in proportion to their size. They use their exceptional hearing to hunt rodents, which they stun by pouncing on them from heights of over 6.5 feet/ 2 meters. Servals favour areas with plenty of tall grass, and can be spotted during the day.
African Wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica)
Those lucky enough to spot an African wildcat in its natural environment could be forgiven for mistaking it for an oversized tabby, thanks to its sandy coat and familiar dark stripes. This is no coincidence, since domestic cats are descended from African wild cats tamed in the Middle East some 10,000 years ago. Today, they are found across Africa and around the edge of the Arabian Peninsula. They can survive in a wide range of habitats, but favor hilly areas and are less common in the desert. African wildcats are nocturnal, and use stalking tactics to hunt small rodents, birds and reptiles. Interbreeding with domestic cats is a possible threat to this species' future.
Caracal (Caracal caracal)
Known as the rooikat or red cat in Afrikaans, the caracal is found in the savannah and dry woodland areas of sub-Saharan Africa. They are also resident in areas of the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. Their name is derived from a Turkish word meaning "black ear", and indeed, long black ear tufts are one of this species' defining features. The caracal has a short tawny red coat, and is the most robust of Africa's small cats with a maximum weight of 40 pounds/ 18 kilograms. They are incredible predators, capable of climbing trees and leaping more than 10 feet/ 3 metres into the air to catch birds in mid-flight. Caracals are difficult to spot, being both nocturnal and naturally secretive.
Sand Cat (Felis margarita)
The sand cat is found in North Africa and Southwest and Central Asia, and is the only cat species to inhabit areas of true desert. Its defining features include a flat, wide head; short legs and oversized ears. It is a small cat, with a floor-to-shoulder height of around 12 inches/ 30 centimeters - however, despite its size, it has the highest bite force quotient of any cat species. It preys on small rodents, and is superbly adapted for life in the desert. Its pale, sandy fur allows for perfect camouflage, while the undersides of its paws are covered with thick fur to protect them from the burning sand. Sand cats can survive temperatures ranging from −5 °C/ 23 °F to 52 °C/ 126 °F, and seek shelter in the burrows of other animals.
Jungle Cat (Felis chaus)
Also called the reed or swamp cat, the jungle cat is a long-legged species with large, pointed ears and a uniform sandy coat. It has a distinctive white muzzle, and is found in China, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and parts of Central and Southeast Asia. In Africa, it only occurs in Egypt. Jungle cat mummies have been found in the tombs of ancient Egyptian pharaohs, suggesting that they were once domesticated and used to help control rodent populations. Despite its name, the jungle cat avoids rainforest and woodland areas and instead favors marshes, swamps and wetlands. The jungle cat is active during the day, and feeds on small rodents and birds.
Black-Footed Cat (Felis nigripes)
Also known as the small-spotted cat, this species is endemic to southern Africa, where it is found predominantly in the dry, open areas of South Africa and Namibia. The black-footed cat is the smallest of all African cat species with an average shoulder height of just 25 centimeters/ 10 inches. It has a stocky build with large eyes and round ears, and its tawny fur is boldly marked with black spots. They are shy, yet fierce when cornered - which is why their Afrikaans name translates as "anthill tiger". Black-footed cats are listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, and are exceptionally hard to spot due to their nocturnal behavior. During the day, they sleep in the abandoned burrows of other animals.
African Golden Cat (Caracal aurata)
The reclusive African golden cat is endemic to the tropical forests of West and Central Africa, from the Central African Republic in the north to northern Angola in the south. It is closely related to the serval and the caracal, and is approximately two times the size of a domestic cat. African golden cats are solidly built, and vary in color from reddish brown to dark grey. Some have spots all over, while others are spotted only on their bellies and inner legs. They are listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List due to habitat loss and hunting for bushmeat, and are known for being incredibly secretive. Because of this, African golden cats were only photographed for the first time in the wild in 2002.