Mini Wildcats: The Pocket-Sized Predators of the African Cape

These miniature wildcats face the same dangers from habitat loss as their larger cousins.
They look like housecats, but these little felines run wild in Africa. (Photo: Dave Hamman/Getty Images)
May 1, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Joanna writes about environment and energy for the NYT, Popular Science, OnEarth Magazine, and more.

You don't have to be a crazy cat lady—or man—to love leopards, get choked up over cheetahs or long to see a lion up-close. There's something transformative about watching a big cat's muscles ripple under its sleek, high-fashion coat, and even the cockiest modern man draped in technology is reminded of his proper place when a lion roars.

But there aren't only three magnificent African cats, there are actually ten, although some weigh as little as three pounds and eat more insects than impalas.

They are just as beautiful and wild as their limelight-hogging big cousins. But in much of their ranges, they're still being persecuted by farmers who view them as livestock-killing vermin, and they're ignored by conservationists who can't get the funding to study them.

Fortunately, for the four species of little cats that call South Africa home, the caracal, serval, African wildcat, and black-footed cat, there's the Cat Conservation Trust, a nonprofit group that breeds cats in order to release them back into the wild.

It's a slow and sometimes grueling process. Wildcats don't fare very well in captivity, and it's not easy to find landowners that want cats on their property. But private game reserves in South Africa, passionate about restoring the indigenous species that roamed the land before livestock farmers eradicated them, are starting to turn their attention to the little cats.

"So far, we've placed eight servals in game reserves in the area," says Marion Holmes, cofounder of Cat Conservation Trust. "Once tourists have seen the big five, they want to see something a little more unexpected and rare, and game reserve owners are starting to see the potential that servals have on their property both for tourist revenue and rodent control."

Servals are long, lean, elegant cats with delicate features and oversized ears that can detect rodents moving underground. They are famous for their acrobatics, leaping up to catch birds in flight, and pouncing down on mice, stunning them silly.

"Because our servals are accustomed to seeing humans, even though we make every effort not to touch or tame them in any way, they are ideal for game reserves because they won't run for shelter at the first rumble of a land rover," says Holmes. "So if a game reserve agrees to welcome a serval onto the land, tourists are almost guaranteed to see them, and the cats can do some PR work for all the underappreciated African felids."

And the other cats certainly need all the PR help they can get. Caracal are still routinely killed by livestock farmers who claim they prey on their sheep and goats. And game reserve owners aren't interested in hosting African wildcats because they look so much like domestic cats that they have "no tourist potential."

"We've found that African wildcats and feral cats are interbreeding more and more," says Holmes. "If the diseases feral cats carry don't kill the African wildcat, then the interbreeding will slowly lead the species down an evolutionary dead end."

As for the black-footed cat, the smallest wildcat in Africa and the second smallest cat in the world, they fall victim to the poisoned carcasses left out by livestock farmers to kill caracals.

A black-footed cat named April, cleaning herself in the late afternoon. Photo: Cat Conservation Trust

"Black-footed cats can't catch anything bigger than a rabbit, so there's no way they pose any threat to livestock," says Holmes. "But the indiscriminate traps and poisoning techniques of the livestock owners kill these tiny cats who would otherwise serve a really important role keeping rodent levels under control."

"Despite what livestock ranchers think, none of these wildcats want to eat sheep or goats," says Holmes. "Their bodies aren't designed for such high-fat diets and it causes significant liver and kidney damage. But like anyone or thing that's hungry, they will steal if they can't get what they need to survive.

She adds, "It doesn't have to be this way. If more land was left undisturbed, there would be plenty of small natural prey for them, and livestock owners wouldn't even see them, let alone have reason to kill them."

What other measures should be taken to preserve wildlife like small wildcats? Let us know in the Comments.