African and Asian wildcat – complete information

Based on a mitochondrial DNA study the umbrella label of “African wildcat” can be broken down into the Near Eastern wildcat (North African wildcat), the Asian wildcat (Asiatic wildcat), and the Southern African wildcat. We should also include the domestic cat which is a domesticated North African wildcat.

This is a complicated area because of the classification of the species. It’s interesting to note that the authors of perhaps the best book on the wildcats, Mel and Fiona Sunquist writing in Wild cats of the World, discuss together the African wildcat and the Asian wildcat. They treat these to be the same in their book in terms of behaviour et cetera. The scientific name for the former is Felis silvestris lybica and for the latter it is Felis silvestris ornata. I have followed their lead. And so has the Wikipedia authors in one respect in that they have shown the distribution of both the African and Asian wildcats as that of the African wildcat. They have merged the two subspecies. This is indicative of the slight confusion surrounding the classification of the wildcat species.

African wildcat
African wildcat. This shows the leggy appearance of the African wildcat compared to the domestic cat and the relatively faint stripes compared to the domestic cat tabby coat. Picture in the public domain.
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Sidebar: please note that when writing about this particular species of small wildcat we join the word “wild” with the word “cat”. When we talk about wild cats generally these two words are separated.

Related to the African wildcat is the European wildcat, the Chinese mountain cat and the sand cat. The mitochondrial DNA study results are shown below.

Showing subspecies of African wildcat and linked species
Showing subspecies of African wildcat and linked species

It is said that the African wildcat is the ancestor of the Egyptian Mau, a purebred show cat. At one time it was thought that the domestication of the wildcat took place in Egypt about 4000 years ago but this is been found to be incorrect. The earliest evidence of a domesticated wildcat was found in a grave with its owner in Cyprus and it was dated to about 9500 years ago.

First domestic cat in Cyprus grave
First domestic cat in Cyprus grave. Photo in public domain.

As for the wildcats of Africa, they still occupy large tracts of continent. They are still hunted with hounds and they still interbreed with domestic cats reflecting the similarity between the domestic and the wildcat versions of the same species.

The established story of domestication of the wildcat may be disturbed by the statement on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™ (Red List) website that says that DNA analysis indicates that the domestic cat diverged from the wildcat 100,000 years ago (‘diverged more than 100,000 years earlier’). Or have I misinterpreted that? This must be incorrect as the domestic cat is the wild 😊.

This subspecies of wildcat are subspecies of the widely distributed wildcat. As mentioned, the Sunquists (Wild Cats Of The World) categorise them together as the African-Asian wildcat. Their distribution extends to Arabian Peninsula, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. On this page I have shown below the range in Africa, however.

Description

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The African and Asian wildcats understandably look like a regular domestic tabby cat in many ways. It is said that one difference between them is the long legs of the wildcat. They are generally slenderer than modern-day domestic tabby cats.

There are two main features that distinguish wildcats from domestic cats and hybrids. In the African wildcat, the backs of the ears are characteristically a rich red brown. Domestic-wild crosses usually have dark grey or black-backed ears. They sometimes retain a little red at the base of the ears. The second major difference is the wildcat’s long legs. This allows the wildcat to move somewhat like a cheetah.

Because of the long legs the ancient Egyptian paintings and mummy cases show a cat in a pose that cannot be replicated by the domestic cat the Sunquists say.

The great similarity to the tabby domestic cat can be seen in this video although the more refined selectively bred purebred cats are more distant in appearance. Modern-day tabby cats in general have a higher contrast pattern than African wildcats due to the evolution has domestic cats.

The coat of this wild cat varies considerably, from grey to a reddish colour. There are spots which can be joined to form stripes. The coat type seems to vary with habitat. The darker coats and more heavily marked cats are found in the less arid areas.

The tail ends in a black tip. This is a classic shorthaired cat.

Southern African wildcat
Southern African wildcat. Photo by hyper7pro on Flickr.

African Wildcat Range 2009

The map below shows the distribution of the African and Asian wildcats. It is dated 2019 and it comes from Wikipedia. They based the map on the IUCN Red List assessment. The Red List is meant to be the definitive source of information about the distribution of the wildcats. Although it should be said that distributions of the wildcats are becoming increasingly more fragmented and shrinking as the decade’s go by. This is the obvious reason of human intervention due to increased human population size and activities.

African and Asian wildcat distribution
African and Asian wildcat distribution. Source: IUCN Red List via Wikipedia.

Difference Between the European and African Wildcat

Ecology and Behaviour

As can be imagined the type of landscape in which this cat lives varies considerably bearing in mind the enormous range. Their range overlaps (is sympatric with) the ranges of the other wildcats of Africa – see Wild Cats of Three Continents. And of course, with other carnivores.

The African Wildcat lives from sea level to 3,000 feet above sea level. They require water (rainfall at a mean annual rate of at or over 100 mm) and/or water courses.

Like all cats, the habitat should provide some sort of cover, be it from rocks, shrubs or even farmer’s crops etc. Some examples of habitat enjoyed by this cat in Africa would be:

PlaceHabitat  – source: Sunquists
Ngorongoro CraterNo trees – grassland
BotswanaOpen woodland and grassland in areas of wetlands and rivers
Zimbabwe -Wankie National ParkDrier woodland and scrub

It hunts on the ground (as opposed to in trees – arboreal cats such as the margay). It is a good climber nonetheless. It is nocturnal. Hunting is most often carried out by a single cat but occasionally they work in groups, apparently.

Prey:

  • primarily rodents (their preference) but they are very adaptable and will bend to suit conditions
  • occasionally larger animals such as hares and young antelope
  • 3-4 kg is the top end for size of prey
  • lambs (livestock)
  • poultry and other birds
  • insects
  • reptiles
  • snakes
  • fruit
  • hunting spiders (Botswana semi-desert areas)

As to home ranges, the African wildcat is, as usual, territorial and it is thought that home ranges extend to about 1.6 kms² (Kenyan male wildcat).

Time in Development or pre-birthEvent (source: Sunquists)
Female on heatfor 8 days and several times a year
Gestation (pregnancy)56-65 days
Birth – number of kittens1-5 (normally 3) in underground den, rock crevices, brush and farmers’ fields occasionally. Birth peak in wet season (prey abundance).
Birth – weight80-120 grams
9-11 days after birthEyes open
First 30 daysNursing
4 weeks oldKittens are mobile
60 days old +Kittens eat live prey brought by mother and at 63+ days they catch prey (mice) themselves
1 year of ageLeave natal area to find home range
DieAbout 15 years in captivity

Threats and Conservation

You can see websites where people advertise the pleasures of hunting this cat with dogs.

Other threats:

  • hybridization by cross mating with the domestic cat or feral cat – it is said that the wildcat generally is often not a purebred. However, research published in 2000 indicates that the Southern African Wild cat is genetically distinct to the domestic cat. Update: conservation status at 2014.
  • disease transmission from feral and domestic cats
  • killed as pests
  • there used to be a trade in skins

Conservation:

The African and Asian wildcats are classified ‘Least Concern’ by the Red List:

“Least Concern (LC) is an IUCN category assigned to extant species or lower taxa which have been evaluated but do not qualify for any other category. As such they do not qualify as threatened, nor Near Threatened, nor (prior to 2001) Conservation Dependent” – Wikipedia®

The wild cat populations are generally decreasing. The Red List does not quote a figure for population size of the wild cat in Africa.

It is only protected in some areas of Africa. The wild cat is CITES Appendix II listed (“Appendix II lists species that are not necessarily now threatened with extinction but that may become so unless trade is closely controlled” – CITES).

Attempts are being made to limit hybridization with feral cats.

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