Fierce Black-footed cat

The Fierce Black-footed cat – is it? I was casually reading the March/April 2010 edition of the Feline Conservation Federation magazine and happened upon the article of Robert Johnson about tracking the Black-footed cat.

He was speaking to Beryl Wilson the head zoologist of the McGregor Museum in Kimberly, South Africa. She is also the project director of the Black-footed Cat Working Group headed by Dr. Alex Sliwa (curator of the Cologne Zoo, Germany).

Beryl told Robert that she had tracked radio collared black-footed cats. Robert learned that this highly successful hunter is almost invisible in the landscape as they use cover so successfully despite the perceived difficulties of hunting in open landscape. They are also constantly on the move and can travel up to 30 kms in an evening! Think about your domestic cat traveling that far in one evening or night and be astonished.

Black-footed cat – Photo by The Brit_2 (Flickr)

Marion Holmes of the [Cat Conservation Trust] taught Robert how fierce the Black-footed cat can be. And how this translates to it being such a successful hunter.

He says that this tiny wildcat, with an average size of 3 lbs which puts in in the miniature cat category of domestic cats, makes “more predations or kills than any other feline and quite probably most other predators”.

Robert explains that they make about one kill for each kilometer that they travel. Remembering that they can travel 30 kms in one evening (which in itself seems extraordinary) this means a maximum of about 30 kills in one night. They are said to make about one hunting attempt every 30 minutes or one every 50 minutes on average. The success rate is 60%. One was observed to kill 12 rodents in 3.5 hours. The weight of food killed is about 20% of the cat’s body weight per night! Whereas tigers might eat 20% of their body weight over several days. The fierce Black-footed cat eats 20% of its body weight in one every night it seems. This may account for the high levels of activity. For this cat it is high energy and high kill rates1.

The big cats can go days without a kill. Of course the big cats (conventionally the tiger, lion, leopard and jaguar) bring down large prey, upon which they can feed for a time. But the Black-footed cat does not solely feed on small prey. The fierce Black-footed cat also hunts the [adult black bustard] – see below. This bird weighs about 670 grams which is about a third to one half the weight of this wildcat. In addition the fierce Black-footed cat can take a Cape hare and they also scavenge springbok lambs.

Black Bustard2

Dr. Alex Sliwa studied this little wildcat in the mid 1990s and continues to do so as far as I am aware. He is perhaps the foremost authority on this species of wildcat.

He followed radio collared Black-footed cats for between 10 and 30 kilometers. He saw three different hunting styles, the fast, the slow and the sit and wait hunting styles. In the first method the cat travels fast at about 2 – 3 kilometers per hour and flushes out prey. The slow method employs stalking at a about 0.5 – 0.8 kilometers per hour snaking its way through the undergrowth, highly alert to prey movements. The sit and wait technique is what we might expect, the fierce Black-footed cat waits at burrows and pounces when prey emerges.

For small birds this wildcat stalks up close and then launches itself after a short burst. This sounds like the domestic cat except the last part of the short burst of speed entails a jump of up to 2 metres long and 1.4 metres high!1 The bird is killed with a bite (probably to the nape of the neck severing the upper vertebrae). The bird is bird is held firmly in position with both forepaws and its dewclaws while the exact spit to bite is ascertained no doubt with the aid of its whiskers.

The fierce Black-footed cat is also very hardy. It works all night and in all weathers. This can mean extremes of -10ºC to 30ºC1.

Alex Sliwa discovered that 39% of the prey of was gerbils, mice and shrews while 21% was small birds such as larks, pipits and chats. In addition this cat eats insects (2% of total prey). In all small birds, rodents and insects is the staple diet of this cat.

When the cat was seen to kill the larger bustard it ate for a full 6 hours and stashed the remainder by covering it with sand.

There are anecdotal accounts of this little wildcat killing sheep through the use of a neck bite. They are said to hang on to the neck with their teeth until the jugular vein is pierced.

In short they are a fierce and determined predator and this characteristic is seen in kittens.

They also defend themselves against enormous odds. Dr. Silwa says he has seen a Black-footed cat defend herself against a jackal, which is 8 times the size of this diminutive wildcat. In answer to the question posed at the beginning, yes, it is fierce but driven by determination, courage and high energy.


1. Wild Cats Of The World by Mel and Fiona Sunquist, pages 77 and 78. Published by The University of Chicago Press 2002. IBSN: 0-226-77999-8 (cloth).

2.Wikimedia Commons file.

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