home   about   search

biodiversity explorer

the web of life in southern Africa

Felis silvestris cafra (African wild cat)

bush cat [English]; vaakboskat [Afrikaans]; Wildkatze, Afrikanische Falbkatze [German]; chat gante, chat sauvage d'Afiique [French]; kaka mwiw, kimbum, kaka pori [Swahili]; igola, ipaka ye-Afrika [isiNdebele]; ingada, ichathaza, imbodla [isiXhosa]; impaka, imbodla [isiZulu]; phaga [Sepedi]; tsetse, setsetse, qwabi [Sesotho]; phage, tibe [Setswana]; nhiriri [Shona]; imbodla, ligoya, imphaka, ingcwa [siSwati]; goya, mphaha [Xitsonga]; phaha, gowa, goya [Tshivenda]; sino no [Lozi] uqhumu [Yei]; !Garo |hab [Nama] [Damara]

Life > Eukaryotes > Opisthokonta > Metazoa (animals) > Bilateria > Deuterostomia > Chordata > Craniata > Vertebrata (vertebrates)  > Gnathostomata (jawed vertebrates) > Teleostomi (teleost fish) > Osteichthyes (bony fish) > Class: Sarcopterygii (lobe-finned fish) > Stegocephalia (terrestrial vertebrates) > Reptiliomorpha > Amniota > Synapsida (mammal-like reptiles) > Therapsida > Theriodontia >  Cynodontia > Mammalia (mammals) > Placentalia (placental mammals) > Laurasiatheria > Ferungulata > Ferae > Carnivora > Family: Felidae (cats) > Subfamily: Felinae

Felis silvestris (African wild cat) Felis silvestris (African wild cat)
African wild cat. [photo Callie de Wet ] African wild cat kitten. [photo Callie de Wet ]

The African wild cat is one of five subspecies of Felis silvestris, which is a species with a wide distribution through Africa, Europe, the Middle East and parts of Asia. The species also includes the Domestic cat, which genetic evidence suggests was domesticated in the Middle East. African wild cat and domestic cats often interbreed in the proximity of human habitations and this is one of the main threats to the survival of the wild subspecies in its pure form. Wild cats are nocturnal and prey on rodents, birds, reptiles and invertebrates. The female holds a territory and does not get any help from males in rearing her litter. 


It is very similar in appearance to a domestic cat. The most distinguishable characteristic is the rich reddish-brown colour of the backs of the large ears, over the belly and on the back legs. The body is marked with vertical stripes but these can vary from faint to quite distinct. The tail is ringed with black and has a black tip. The chin and throat are white and the chest is usually paler than the rest of the body. The legs are proportionately longer than those of the domestic cat. The feet are jet black underneath. The skull is small, with a short muzzle this is a result of the reduction in the nasal cavity and the jaw length. The skull is broad and highly arched and relatively lightly built. The cheek bones (zygoma) are bowed from the sides of the skull and are thick and strongly built providing substantial attachments for the masseter and temporalis muscles that are important during killing and eating. The jaws only move vertically for cutting and gripping. The powerful masseter muscle is responsible for the vice-like killing grip.


Body length 85-100 cm; shoulder height 35 cm; weight range 2.5 –6.0 kg. 


The large canines are flattened and sharp, specifically adapted to performing the killing bite on the back of the neck where they push between the vertebrae and severe the spinal cord. The molars and premolars are adapted as carnassials for gripping and tearing. As there are no teeth for chewing, the tongue is covered with sharp-pointed papillae that retain and lacerate food and can rasp flesh off a carcass. Males are generally larger and heavier than females.

Dental Formula:

 I C P M = 30

Distribution and habitat

Felis silvestris has a wide distribution that includes Africa, Europe, the Middle East and across Asia, extending to China. Within this distribution, five subspecies have been distinguished using genetic methods. One of these is Felis silvestris cafra which has a distribution covering Africa south of equator (and a little bit north of it as well). Felis silvestris lybica is the subspecies found in North Africa and its distribution also extends into the Middle East and beyond that to the region east of the Caspian Sea. Genetic evidence shows that the Domestic cat (Felis silvestris catus) was domesticated in the Middle East from Felis silvestris lybica. Placing domesticated forms into separate subspecies or species is a common practice, which is convenient but does not make much sense from a phylogenetic point of view.

The African wild cat is widely distributed throughout southern Africa but does not occur along Namibian coast. It has a wide habitat tolerance - as long as there is some sort of cover.

General behaviour

Almost entirely nocturnal, they are only active once it is dark. During the day the cat rests concealed within available cover, such as rocky hillsides, underbrush, reedbeds or clumps of tall grass. Where suitable cover is not available they will use burrows, termetaria, roots of trees and high-standing grain crops. Like most of the cat family the African wild cat is usually solitary although they may be seen in mating pairs or small groups consisting of a female accompanied by her kittens. They are secretive and extremely territorial with home ranges are clearly urine-marked. They bury their droppings in the same manner as a domesticated cat, but may use latrine sites.

Hunting and food

The African wild cat has a very good sense of hearing. Typical of a cat when hunting, they stalk their prey, then crouch with a settling of the hind feet to get a good grip and finally rush in or pounce to make the kill. Small mammal prey is killed by a bite to the back of the neck. In their diet small rodents are the commonest food, but they do eat other small mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects and other invertebrates. The largest recorded prey include hares, springhares and birds up to the size of guineafowl.


Each female holds a territory. After a gestation period of about 65 days, litters of 2-5 kittens are born in summer and hidden in dense cover or old burrows. The male does not play a role in the rearing of the young.

Life span

10 – 12 years.


As it is closely related to the domestic cat (Felis silvestris catus), the African wild cat interbreeds readily in areas where they come into contact. Today it is difficult to find pure-bred African wild cats anywhere near areas of human settlement. Currently this species is not considered threatened but if this hybridization with domestic cats continues and with increasing human habitation, pure-bred African wild cats may cease to exist. Other threats include persecution by hunters and local farmers, as well as habitat loss.


Text by Denise Hamerton