August 19

Five Lesser-known Wild Cats of Africa


August 19, 2011

You’ve probably heard of and love the big cats of Africa. The royal lion, majestic leopard and swift cheetah are often on safari lists of ‘animals to spot’. But do you know the about the lesser-known wild cats of Africa? Any traveller to the vast and diverse African landscapes can be lucky to see these five wild cats on safari.

1. Caracal

The turfed, black eyes are characteristic of these wild cats
Image credit: Peter Mackenzie

About: The caracal is an elegant cat with short reddish-brown fur on the back and sides. The chin, throat and underside are white. These wild cats have distinctive long black ears with white at the ear base, and long tufts of black fur at the tips.

Caracals are often found in their preferred environments; woodland, savannah and scrub forests. Caracals use abandoned burrows, rock crevices or dense vegetation for their dens. They are carnivorous and prey on birds, rodents, and small antelopes. They stalk their prey before pouncing upon it. Caracals sometimes store remains of prey in tree forks or dense shrubs for later feeding.

Found in regions including

  • Botswana
  • Kenya
  • Mozambique
  • Namibia
  • South Africa
  • Tanzania
  • Zimbabwe and more.
A rare sighting of a caracal at Somkhanda Game Reserve
Image credit: Richard Steyn, Wildlife ACT

Where to see: these wild cats are a bit shy, so you’d be really lucky to cast eyes on caracals. You can visit a few places such as, Kwandwe Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape, Phinda Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal and De Hoop Nature Reserve in the Western Cape. For a personalised trip to these reserves, contact our experts for a memorable journey to South Africa.

2. Serval

A rare serval camouflages well into its natural habitat
Image credit: Hans Hillewaert

About: The serval is a large cat with reddish-brown fur with dark spots that sometimes merge into stripes down the back. The legs are very long relative to body size and help them see over the long savannah grass. The head is proportionately small compared with the body and legs. The ears are very long and rounded with white stripes on the back.

Servals are mostly found in open grasslands, wooded savannah and rainforest fringes. They are carnivores and eat small mammals such as hares, rats and ground squirrels, as well as birds and frogs. They catch their prey by leaping (up to ten feet/ three metres high) and pouncing with both front paws, and often play with their prey before eating it.

Found in regions including

  • Botswana
  • Kenya
  • Mozambique
  • Namibia
  • South Africa
  • Tanzania
  • Uganda
  • Zambia and more.
A serval spotted in Tanzania
Image credit: Geoffrey Oddie

Where to see: in the higher altitudes of Kenya, the Aberdare Mountains of the Aberdare National Park, you might be lucky enough to spot a melanistic serval – a genetic anomaly that makes the serval’s coat black. Read more about genetic anomalies here!

In South Africa, the ideal place to see these wild cats is at Lion Sands Private Game Reserve, an award-winning reserve situated in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve. Keen to visit? Contact us.

3. African Wild Cat

The rare African Wild Cat in Namibia
Image credit: Bart Wursten

About: The African wild cat is usually grey brown with a pattern of black stripes over the body. The fur is fairly short and soft; the tail bushy. They are similar in appearance and colour to a tabby domestic cat. African wild cats vary from yellowish brown to gray to brown, with pattern of stripes and spots.

They are found in a range of habitats, but not in rainforest or open desert. Wild cats feed on small mammals, such as mice, rats, rabbits, birds, reptiles, amphibians, eggs and large insects. They can capture prey almost as large as themselves.

Found in regions including

  • Botswana,
  • Kenya
  • Mozambique
  • Namibia,
  • South Africa
  • Tanzania and more
A close-up of the African Wild Cat spotted in Emdoneni Lodge, KwaZulu Natal
Image credit: Emdoneni Lodge

Where to see: an African wild cat has even taken up residence at the Kapama Buffalo Lodge, in the Kapama Private Game Reserve, which occupies a vast area between the northern Drakensberg mountains and the Greater Kruger National Park.

In Namibia, you can also see the African Wild Cat at the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, where the first photo above was taken. Feel free to contact us for more information and grab your cameras and go…

4. Black Footed Cat

The smallest of the wild cats; Black footed Cat
Image credit: Mitchell, Big Cats Rescue

About: The Black Footed Cat is one of the smallest species of wild cats and similar in shape to the domestic cat. The fur is brownish with a pattern of round black or dark brown spots. It has a large head relative to the body. It has two black stripes across each cheek with pale area between the stripes. There are two black stripes on the forelegs, and up to five on the back legs. The soles of the feet have black fur to protect them from the hot sand. The tail is about half the length of the head and body.

The cat is found in the drier parts of Southern Africa. Black Footed Cats are considered the smallest but most deadliest wild cats of Africa – see why on BBC One’s video. It feeds on small prey such as rodents, birds, spiders, insects. They catch their prey by stalking and pouncing on it. Sometimes the may scavenge on larger dead mammals. The conservation status in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals for this cat is, sadly, “vulnerable”.

Found in the drier regions of

  • Botswana
  • Namibia
  • South Africa
Tswalu Kalahari has a Black footed Cat in the area
Image credit: Dr Alex Sliwa

Where to see: In Namibia, you can be lucky to spot these wild cats at the Tswulu Kalahari Game Reserve, which is also home to luxurious lodges. Be sure to ask our experts for the best lodges and times to visit.

5. African Golden Cat

The African Golden Cat can be found in the hills of the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
Image credit:

About: Likely the most elusive of the wild cats, The African Golden Cat is a medium-sized wild cat found in the rainforests of West and Central Africa. It is a close relative of both the caracal and the serval. African Golden Cat prefers dense, moist forest with heavy undergrowth, and is often found close to rivers.

Due to its extremely reclusive habits, little is known about its behavior. They are solitary animals, and normally crepuscular or nocturnal, although they have also been observed hunting during the day, depending on the availability of local prey. The African Golden Cat is able to climb, but hunts primarily on the ground. It mainly feeds on rodents, but also includes birds, small monkeys, duikers, giant forest hogs and small antelope in its diet. These cats have also been known to take domestic poultry and livestock.

More recent videos have captured these wild cats, giving us more insight to their lives.

Found in the regions of Senegal in the west to Kenya in the east, and ranges as far north as the Central African Republic and as far south as northern Angola. Look out for them in Uganda‘s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.

Enjoyed this post? Find out more about the other animals of Africa in our blog – including the Big 5, the Marine 5, and Africa’s bigger cats such as the leopard and cheetah. For more information on how to book a trip to this magnificent continent to spot these animals on your own safari, contact us!



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About the author 

Tamlin Wightman

Tamlin has been exploring, writing about and photographing Africa ever since her first job as a photojournalist for Getaway Magazine. She's lived on an island, eaten with lions, sailed catamarans in the Indian Ocean, tracked wild dogs with Kinglsey Holgate, and white water rafted down the Zambezi and has kept just about every airplane ticket that has crossed her hands.

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