The 10 Amazing Wild Cats of Africa

Wild cats are some of the most charismatic animals on earth, and Africa is home to 10 different wild cat species. Two of them are big cats: African lion and leopard, and eight are classified as small cats: cheetah, serval, caracal, African golden cat, jungle cat, sand cat, African wildcat, and black-footed cat. Three African cats are endemic to the African continent: African golden cat, serval and black-footed cat. The other seven cats also occur in parts of Asia and the Middle East.

Each cat species is as beautiful as it is unique. However, despite their differences, all wild cats, from lions to domestic cats, are unmistakably feline. They are essentially a variation on the same theme: solitary ambush hunters evolved to catch and kill whatever prey is available where they live. As obligate carnivores, cats are all about eating meat.

Serval - wild cats of africa
Serval

The cats’ incredible adaptations for catching and consuming prey enabled them to become a very successful family. There are 40 cat species in the Felidae family, distributed across all continents except Antarctica.

Yet after prowling the earth’s forests, deserts, and mountain ranges for more than 4 million years, cats now find themselves living in the world where their habitats are destroyed, their prey is replaced with domestic stock, and they are persecuted for catching it.

The first step towards learning to live better with wild cats is getting to know them. So here is the introduction to the 10 wild cats of Africa. From the mighty lion to the tiny black-footed cat, they represent 10 unique and fascinating ways of being a cat.

African lion

African lion
African lion. Image: Pixabay
  • Latin name: Panthera leo
  • Conservation status: Vulnerable

The Lion is the largest wild cat in Africa and the second largest cat on earth (after the Siberian tiger). A male African lion grows to up to 225 kg (496 lb) and reaches over two meters in length. The females are smaller – up to 144 kg (317 lb). The now extinct Barbary lions that occurred in North Africa until the mid-1960s were rumoured to be even larger, with males weighing between 270 and 300 kg (595 to 661 lb).

Lions are the only wild cats that live in groups or prides. One of the explanations for the lion’s unusual social structure is that it is easier for a group to hold and defend a territory with prime resources (like prey and water availability). Therefore, larger prides have better territories.

Lions once ranged across most of Africa and parts of Europe and Asia. Today lions are restricted to fragmented populations in Sub-Saharan Africa and a single population in India. As of 2017, two subspecies of lions are recognized:

  • The Northern Lion (Panthera leo leo) includes the Asiatic, West African, Central African, and the extinct Barbary lions
  • The Southern Lion (Panthera leo melanochaita) that includes the Cape lion, the East lion and the White lions.

A rare variation on the lion theme is the White lion. The white lion population is quite small and restricted South Africa’s to Kruger National Park and the adjoining Timbavati Private Game Reserve. Many white lions have been removed from the wild for captive breeding in zoos and game parks, further impoverishing the gene pool of the wild population. Nonetheless, new cubs are born every year in the wild, and the population persists.

White lion
White lion. Image: iStock

Man-eating

As apex predators, lions are formidable creatures to share the landscape with. While lion attacks on humans are rare, they do happen. The most infamous man-eating lions were the two males from Tsavo that reportedly killed 135 people. They were known to drag railway workers from their tents during the construction of the Kenya-Uganda railway in 1898.

One of the theories proposed to explain Tsavo’s lions’ penchant for human flesh posits that historically Tsavo region was traversed by the slave trading routes. Travelling through virgin African bush in the 1800s was a perilous undertaking, and malnourished slaves often died on route. The bodies were never buried but were left for the predators to devour. So Tsavo lions were probably no strangers to eating human flesh. And when they could no longer catch wild prey due to their injuries, they turned to hunting people.

Wild cats of Africa - lion
Tawny lions in South Africa

Threats to lions

As gruesome as the idea of the man-eaters is, it is mostly the lions that fall prey to humans, not the other way around. All lion populations are threatened to various degrees. Like most cats, lions are threatened by habitat loss, poaching and persecution by farmers for real and perceived dangers to their livelihoods.

In addition, lions routinely fall victim to trophy hunters. The effects of killing a lion are not limited to the individual lion being shot. Trophy hunting is a competitive hobby, and each hunter tries to kill the biggest, strongest lion they can find, which is usually the dominant male who has his own pride. When that male is killed, a younger male or a coalition of males will claim his territory and his pride, killing all dependent cubs to bring females into estrous so he can mate with them. Territory takeover is a turbulent time in the lions’ world.

Leopard

African leopard -wild cats of africa
African leopard. Image: Adobe Stock
  • Latin name: Panthera pardus
  • Conservation status: Vulnerable

Africa’s second big cat, the leopard, is one of the most adaptable wild cats in the world, occurring across a wide range of habitats in Africa and Asia. It is the most confident climber of all wild cats of Africa. Despite its elegant build, the leopard is extraordinarily strong, capable of hauling its kills into the trees to keep them safe from lions and hyenas.

It is also capable of hunting from trees pouncing on its prey from above, its spotted coat making it all but invisible in the dappled light filtering through the tree’s branches.

While the leopard’s spots may appear very similar to those of the jaguar and the cheetah, the pattern of the spots is distinct in these three cats. Jaguar’s spots or rosettes have smaller spots inside them, while the leopard’s spots are ‘hollow’ inside, filled with the tawny background colour. And cheetah’s spots are solid black in colour.

Leopard’s are known to attack humans when they live in close proximity. Some of the most notorious man-eating leopard’s have been recorded in India, where a single leopard had killed 400 people in the early 20th century. However, for the most part, leopard’s avoid people, like most wild cats.

Despite its adaptability, the leopard lost 75% of its distribution range mostly through habitat conversion to agricultural lands. The remaining leopards are distributed across multiple isolated populations from South Africa to Sri Lanka. There 8 recognized leopard subspecies with many populations outside of Africa in various stages of endangerment:

  • African leopard (Panthera pardus pardus)
  • Indian leopard (Panthera pardus fusca)
  • Javan leopard (Panthera pardus melas) – Critically endangered
  • Arabian leopard (Panthera pardus nimr)
  • Persian leopard (Panthera pardus tulliana) – Endangered
  • Amur leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis) – Critically endangered
  • Indochinese leopard (Panthera pardus delacouri)
  • Sri Lankan leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya)
Black leopard. Image: Istock

Some leopards spot a striking black coat. Black leopards often referred to as black panthers, are fairly common, especially in parts of Asia, where they are frequently seen on wildlife safaris. Black African leopards are much rarer, but they do occur.

Cheetah

Cheetah - wild cats of Africa
Cheetah. Image: Unsplash
  • Latin name: Acinonyx jubatus
  • Conservation status: Vulnerable

Cheetah is another exception from the common felid modus operandi of a solitary ambush hunter. Unlike most cats that sneak up on their prey and catch it in a quick burst of power, the cheetah is a cursory hunter – it catches its prey by a sustained high-speed chase. Capable of running at 80 – 130 km/h, the cheetah is the fastest land animal on earth.

This distinction comes with a very specialized feline body that is quite different to that of other cats. It is small and lightweight with long legs and tail and an extraordinarily flexible spine.

Just like a galloping horse, the cheetah can lift all four feet off the ground and become airborne. Its nostrils and sinuses are adapted for high oxygen intake so that its blood has enough oxygen to fire up the specialized ‘fast twitch’ muscles. A cheetah’s body is an engineering masterpiece. And once you understand the cheetah’s body, it becomes easy to tell cheetahs from leopards – the two large spotted cats that look alike.

Cheetah is also well adapted to life in the African heat – it only needs to drink once in four days.

Cheetahs are typically solitary hunters. However, young brothers often stay together after leaving their mother, forming a coalition. The benefit of sticking together is that it is easier for two or three males to hold a territory, and by extension, have access to breeding females than for a single male.

King cheetah
King cheetah. Image: iStock

A variation on the cheetah theme is a King cheetah with an unusual coat due to a rare mutation. Unlike the usual small spots, King cheetah’s coat is patterned with striking large blotchy spots and three thick stripes along the back. With no more than 50 King cheetahs in the world, mostly living in captivity, it is the rarest type of wild cat on earth. Although, King cheetah is not a separate subspecies but simply a variating on Southeast African cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus jubatus).

There are four subspecies of cheetah, three of them living on the African continent and one clinging to survival in Iran and possibly Afghanistan.

  • Southeast African cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus jubatus)
  • Northeast African cheetah, also known as Sudan cheetah(Acinonyx jubatus soemmeringii) occurs in South Sudan, Ethiopia and possibly still persist in Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia.
  • Northwest African cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus hecki) is native to the Sahara desert and is listed as Critically Endangered
  • Asiatic cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus) is limited to the central deserts of Iran and also listed as Critically Endangered.

The global population of cheetahs was estimated at approximately 7,100 individuals in 2016, and the future of the world’s fastest cat is uncertain.

African Golden Cat

African Golden cat
African golden cat. Image @ By John Gerrard Keulemans via Wikipedia Creative Commons
  • Latin name: Caracal aurata
  • Conservation status: Vulnerable
  • Endemic to Africa

African golden cat is the least known of all wild cats of Africa and one of the least studied cats in the world. It is so rare that even the scientists who have been studying the species for 20 years have only seen them a few times. Most records of African golden cats come from photographs captured by remote cameras.

Not much is known about African golden cats and their lives in the wild. It is a medium-sized, compactly built cat with relatively short legs. Its fur is reddish-brown or greyish and can be spotted or plain. Tawny-coloured mothers may produce grey kittens and vice versa.

Most of the information about the ecology of the species comes from two field studies: in Gabon and Uganda.

This video by National Geographic, taken by a remote camera set up by the team of researchers from Panthera, is the best public footage of a wild African golden cat. The nighttime footage even caught the cat hunting a bat.

And this extraordinary footage shows an African golden cat flying like an arrow past a hidden camera Kibale national park in Uganda and snatching a monkey from a feeding troop.

While the information on the ecology of African golden cats is lacking, the threats to its survival are obvious: deforestation, declining prey due to bushmeat trade and the killing of cats themselves.

Serval

all types of wild cats: Serval
Serval. Image: Adobe Stock
  • Latin name: Leptailurus serval
  • Conservation status: Least concern
  • Endemic to Africa

Serval is a medium-sized cat endemic to Africa, closely related to the African golden cat and the caracal. It is a highly specialized and very successful rodent hunter. While most cat species succeed in around one in ten attempts of catching prey, serval’s success rate is about 50 per cent.

The secret to serval’s success lies in its hunting strategy and some extraordinary adaptations for catching small prey in tall grass. To start with, serval has the longest legs in proportion to the body size of all cat species. The combination of long legs and an elongated neck enables the serval to see over tall grass and has earned the cat the nickname of ‘giraffe cat’.

The long legs are not only useful for providing a high vantage point but function as loaded springs that allow the serval leap up to 3m straight up in the air and up to 4m forwards. This is a handy trick for snatching birds from the air or for pouncing onto rodents concealed in the grass.

But first, the serval needs to find its prey. And this is where his huge radar-like ears come into play to detect the ultrasonic frequencies emitted by rodents even when they are burrowing underground.

Once the prey is detected, the serval launches into a high vertical pounce and comes down on its victim with all its weight from above.

Three subspecies of servals are currently recognized, although this classification has not been confirmed by genetic studies:

  • Leptailurus serval serval in southern Africa
  • Leptailurus serval constantina in West and Central Africa. This subspecies is listed as Endangered
  • Leptailurus serval lipostictus in East Africa
wild cats of Africa - melanistic serval
Melanistic serval. Image: iStock

While melanism (black coat) is fairly common in wild cats, melanistic servals are quite rare. They are known from a handful of locations in Africa, including Kenya’s Tsavo conservancy and Tanzania’s Namiri Plains.

Caracal

caracal - wild cats of Africa
Caracal. Image: Adobe Stock
  • Latin name: Caracal caracal
  • Conservation status: Least Concern

Caracal is a medium-sized cat that occurs in the savannas and forests across Africa and in parts of the Middle East. Its most recognizable feature is its large, pointy ears with long black tufts at the ends. These incredible ears are controlled by approximately 20 muscles to help these hunters better determine where prey is hiding. The word Caracal means ‘black ears’ in Turkish.

Caracal is the strongest cat for its size, and much of its strength comes from its powerful back legs that can propel the cat two meters into the air from a standstill to snatch a bird from mid-air. Here is some fantastic footage of a caracal catching flying birds.

Caracals were tamed in ancient Egypt at least 3,500 years ago. Several centuries later, they were trained for hunting birds and in Iran and India. They were also used in gladiator-style games where a caracal would be unleashed into a pen of feeding doves, and the spectators would place bets on how many doves the caracal would catch. This is where the phrase “to put a cat amongst the pigeons” comes from.

Caracals are considered widespread in Central and Southern Africa, although they face the same threats as all other felids – loss of habitat, prosecution by farmers, and collisions with vehicles.

Jungle Cat

jungle cat
Jungle cat. Image: Adobe Stock
  • Latin name: Felis chaus
  • Conservation status: Least Concern

The jungle cat is a medium-sized, long-legged cat that preys on small mammals, birds, and reptiles. Unlike most cats, it is a good swimmer and can dive into shallow water to catch fish.

More at home in the wetlands and swamps than in the jungle, the jungle cat is distributed mostly across the Middle East and Asia. In Africa, it occurs only in Egypt, where its population is in sharp decline.

Cats, in general, played a big role in the culture of Ancient Egypt and mummies of jungle cats have been found in Egyptian tombs, along with wildcats and domestic cats. They also have been represented as hunters of small birds and mammals in Egyptian wall paintings.

Jungle cats are unusual among small cats in that they are active primarily during the day, stalking rodents among the reeds.

African Wildcat

African wildcat
African wildcat. Image: Adobe Stock
  • Latin name: Felis lybica
  • Conservation status: Least Concern

One of the smaller wild cats of Africa, the African wildcat has a wide distribution across Africa and Asia. It is a nocturnal hunter of small mammals, mainly rodents, as well as birds and reptiles.

About 9,000 years ago, African wildcats were tamed by the early agricultural societies in Mesopotamia. When humans began to cultivate their own food, they also began storing excess grain. These grain stores attracted hoards of rodents, and wildcats probably followed the rodents to human settlements. Humans would have welcomed the cats for their ability to catch mice and eventually began taming them.

However, the wildcat was not fully domesticated until about 4,500 years ago in Ancient Egypt (although some might say they were never fully domesticated). The Egyptians loved their cats and even ascribed a divine status to them. Many mummified cats were found in Egyptian Tombs.

In terms of appearance, the African wildcat has longer legs than the domestic cat, which gives it a more upright posture when it sits and a different gait when it walks. However, wild and domestic cats can and often do interbreed and give birth to what is considered as ‘hybrid offspring’.

African wildcat’s population has not been assessed, but it is considered to be of Least Concern to conservation.

Sand Cat

Sand cat
Sand cat. Image: Adobe Stock
  • Latin name: Felis margarita
  • Conservation status: Least Concern

The sand cat is an unusual little cat. It is the only true desert cat in the world. Found in sandy and stony deserts across Africa, the Arabian peninsula, and in parts of central Asia, these little cats grow to 39-52 centimeters in length and weigh between 1.3-3.4 kilograms.

Their thick coat enables sand cats to tolerate temperatures as high as 50 degrees Celsius (124 degrees Fahrenheit) during the day and as low as zero degrees Celsius (31 degrees Fahrenheit) at night. Thick hair tufts protect their feet from the scorching sand. But when the heat becomes unbearable, sand cats retreat to their burrows. They are the only cats that dig burrows for themselves. Although, in Western Sahara, they have been observed resting in abandoned crow nests.

True desert dwellers, Sand cats can survive without water for weeks, obtaining all the moisture they need from their rodent prey. And when rodents are hard to come by, sand cats turn to their snake killing skills. They are particularly known for hunting the highly venomous horned and sand vipers.

In 2017, sand cat kittens were filmed in the wild for the first time in the Moroccan Sahara Desert, and they nearly broke the internet.

Black-footed Cat

Black-footed cat - wild cats in africa
Black-footed cat. Image: Adobe Stock
  • Latin name: Felis nigripes
  • Conservation status: Vulnerable
  • Endemic to African

Famous for being the deadliest cat on Earth, the tiny Black-footed cat is the third endemic wild cat of Africa (along with African golden cat and serval). Its distribution range is limited to the grasslands of Southern Africa.

This formidable hunter of small rodents grows to all of 35–52 cm (14–20 in) in length and weighs a whopping 1 to 3 kg (2 to 6 lb) – roughly 200 times less than the average lion. Yet its hunting success rate is an impressive 60 percent, in comparison to the lion’s 20-25 percent.

Africa’s smallest wild cat, the black-footed cat, is the second smallest wild cat in the world, after the rusty-spotted cat. It is an excellent hunter with an astonishing appetite – it can consume up to 3,000 rodents a year.

Live Science reports that Black-footed cats use three very different strategies to catch their prey. The fastest technique involves the cat bounding quickly through the tall grass, flushing out birds or rodents.

A slower technique is the typical felid wander through the habitat on the lookout for potential prey to sneak upon.

And the slowest method has the cat sitting motionless for up to 2 hours near a rodent’s burrow, waiting for the rodent to appear and then snatching it in a fast pounce.

A good place to see these tiny nature powerhouses in action is Marrick Safari in South Africa’s Northern Cape. 

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