Big cats may steal the show when it comes to African wildlife viewing, but African wild cats come in all shapes and sizes. Africa is actually home to ten unique species of wild cats that can be found right across the continent – in habitats ranging from savannas and jungles to wetlands and deserts.
Despite their differences, all African wild cats – and indeed all cats around the world – share a number of common characteristics. They all have:
- Retractable claws (except cheetahs)
- Strong, flexible forelimbs
- Slender, muscular bodies
Additionally, all cats are carnivores and, excluding lions who hunt in groups, are all solitary predators that stalk or ambush their prey.
So here is the list of the ten wild cats of Africa, categorised by big cats, medium cats, and small cats. Somewhat confusingly, the list of African wild cats includes the African wildcat (Felis lybica), a small wild cat species native to Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia:
Big Cats of Africa
Group name: Leap.
Size: 1 meter high, weighing up to 100 kg.
Speed: 56 km per hour.
Range & Habitat: Leopards live in more places than any other big cat, and are comfortable in almost any habitat, including deserts, rainforests, woodland, grassland savanna, mountain, scrub, and swamps. Leopards are one of the few big game species found outside national parks.
Group name: Pride.
Size: 1.2 meters, weighing up to 225kg.
Speed: At a maximum speed of 80 kilometers per hour, the lion is the second fastest land animal in Africa.
Range & Habitat: Lions tend to prefer grassland, savanna, dense scrub, and open woodland. They are found across sub-Saharan Africa, and also in a small part of north-east India.
Best places to see Lion: Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, South Africa, Kruger National Park, South Africa, Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania, Okavango Delta, Botswana.
Group name: Coalition.
Size: 0.9 metres, weighing up to 72kg.
Speed: With a maximum speed of 92 kilometers per hour, the cheetah is the fastest land animal in the world.
Diet: Cheetahs hunt small and medium-sized mammals such as hares, impala, wildebeest calves, and gazelle, either on their own or in small family groups.
Range & Habitat: Cheetahs are found in Eastern and Southern Africa (though are also found in Iran and Afghanistan), generally confined to very small, fragmented habitats of savannah, dry and scrub forests, and grasslands.
Medium Cats of Africa
Smaller than a big cat and larger than the small cat come the appropriately-named medium cats. Here are the three medium-sized wild cats found in Africa:
Caracal (meaning ‘black ears’ in Turkish) are common across Africa, and also native to the Middle East, and parts of Asia and India. They are characterised by their stocky body on long legs, tufted ears, and their uniform sandy colour. At 0.5 meters tall they weigh in at just 12 kg, and are spectacular acrobats, able to leap 3 meters into the air.
The slender, long-legged serval is widespread in sub-Saharan Africa outside of rainforest regions and rare in North Africa. It’s characterised by a small head, large ears, longer legs, a beautiful golden coat with black stripes and spots, and a short, black-tipped tail. With its body shape and excellent hearing, the serval is well equipped for hunting, ambushing prey at night with pounces of up to 3.5 meters to stun and kill.
African Golden Cat
The African golden cat is an elusive animal that’s a close relative of the caracal and the serval. It’s the only African wild cat that lives in the tropical forests of West and Central Africa, preferring dense, moist habitat with heavy undergrowth, but is also found in cloud and bamboo forests and moorlands.
Named for the colour of their fur, they are powerful, sturdy animals are about twice the size of a domestic cat. Their size allows them to successfully hunt mammals as large as antelopes, duikers, and young giant forest hog, as well as smaller prey such as rodents, birds, and small monkeys.
Small Cats of Africa
The African wildcat is native to Africa, the Middle East and parts of Southern Asia and China, and thought to be the ancestor of our domestic cats, first domesticated in Egypt around 10,00 years ago. Weighing up to 4.5 kg, they stand around 0.25 meters tall at the shoulder with a body length of around 0.55 meters plus a 0.3 meter tail. African wildcats (Felis lybica) are not to be confused with their cousins the European wildcat (Felis silvestris).
The African wildcat’s fur is light sandy grey, with white fur on the belly and on the throat, and slightly tufted ears. They are nocturnal animals, with excellent hearing, allowing them to locate prey to including small mammals, birds, and lizards.
The black-footed cat is the smallest wild cat in Africa and one of the smallest wildcats in the world, weighing 2 kg and standing 0.25 meters tall. They’re nocturnal animals, and rarely seen, found only on the grassy plains and desert areas of South Africa and Namibia. It’s estimated that these cats can kill and eat up to 3,000 rodents a year, and are a well-adapted desert animal, able to obtain all the moisture they need from their food.
The jungle cat (also known as a reed cat or swamp cat) is found across the Middle East, Asia, and southern China, and makes it into this list of African wild cats due to its occurrence in parts of Egypt. Despite its name, the jungle cat inhabits wetlands with dense vegetation rather than jungles, camouflaged by its uniformly sandy, spotless fur. As with most small and medium-sized cats, the nocturnal jungle cat hunts by stalking its prey, followed by a sprint or a leap.
The sand cat is the only wild cat in Africa – or the indeed world – that lives solely in desert environments, with a wide distribution across some of the world’s largest deserts such as the Sahara, the Gobi and the Arabian deserts. Also known as the dune cat and ‘the cat that digs holes’, the thick, long hair on the soles of their feet is an adaptation to protect them against the desert extremes of hot and cold temperatures. They are characterized by their flat, wide head and short legs, and stand 0.35 meters tall, weighing in at 3.5 kg.
And that’s the complete list of African wild cats. What do you think – any wild cats that surprise you? Let us know in the comments section below!