What is a “caffre cat”?

The wildcats of South Africa and Namibia are sometimes referred to as “caffre cats”. They are a species of small wild cat looking like a tabby domestic cat. The Mirriam-Webster dictionary tells us that the phrase “caffre cat” is a variant of “kaffir cat”. And “kafir” means a person who does not believe in the Islam faith. I don’t think that there is a connection between these two meanings, however.

An African wildcat looking like a hybrid and a tabby domestic cat
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An African wildcat looking like a hybrid and even a tabby domestic cat. This could well be a caffre cat. I am not sure.

Dr John Bradshaw in his book Cat Sense writes about caffre cats. This species of wild cat migrated south on the African continent from the original wildcat population in the north about 175,000 years ago. I believe that even today the experts don’t know where the geographical boundary is between the North African wildcats (Asian-African wildcats) and those in the south (Southern African wildcats).

African wildcats are all over the continent. The scene is a bit like the times of 10,000 years ago when the wildcats were first domesticated. These wildcats sometimes hang around villages and mate with domestic cats creating hybrids who are less wild. In some areas of Africa the street cats “show signs of some wildcat in their ancestry”. There is a blurring of the boundary between domestic cats, street cats (community cats) and random bred pet cats in Africa.

Dr Bradshaw describes the behaviour of two hand-reared female wildcats who lived with a naturalist and museum director in the 1960s, Reay Smithers. Mr and Mrs Smithers called their cats Goro and Komani. They lived in what was then Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. Their cats were fairly tame and semi-domesticated. They fought with each other and were let out of their pens separately. Hardly pets in the conventional sense. Once Komani disappeared for four months. When he returned he behaved like a returning domestic cat. Smithers wrote, “the reunion was most moving, Komani going into transports of purring and rubbing herself against my wife’s legs”.

Both Goro and Komani were friendly towards their dogs. They’d curl up in front of the fire together. In many respects they behaved like random-bred, domesticated tabby cats. Their hand rearing had socialised them. Dr Bradshaw believes that they were hybrids. Somewhere in their ancestry there was a mating between wildcat and domestic cat.

The hybridisation of African wildcats is very common on the continent. In one test of DNA sequences of wildcats it was found that one third were hybrids (8 out of 24). This reminds me of the extinction of the Scottish wildcat; made extinct (believed) by mating with outdoor domestic cats and feral cats which has left the wildcat losing its purebred status. This makes it extinct.

Caffre cat is also referred to as Caffer cat or Egyptian cat.

Note: I have deliberately spelled “wildcats” and “wild cats” differently. The former refers to all wild cats of whatever species. The latter refers to a specific species, the one I am discussing in this article.

Some more on the African wildcat

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Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 74-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare. If you want to read more click here.

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