[This was written by Fran Siebrits and published online by Wild Magazine http://www.wildcard.co.za/, 2012]

Kruger’s wild cats are nocturnal and secretive, plus so perfectly camouflaged for the bush that you should count yourself lucky if you see one. A new research project is trying to determine what impact domesticated cats are having on their wild cousins.

The elusive African wild cat is rarely seen during daylight hours, making it difficult to record sightings and determine how many of the cats are left in Kruger. For a better chance of spotting this feline you would have to go on a night drive, but even then a spotlight can only illuminate so much.

On top of this, it is difficult to distinguish between a wild cat and a domestic cat from a distance. If you manage to get close, there is a tell-tale sign that you can look for. Wild cats always have a reddish colour behind their ears – domestic and hybrid cats have lost this colour and have darker grey ears.

When wild and domestic cats interbreed it leads to hybridisation – the main threat to the survival of wild cats today. SANParks invasion ecologist Llewellyn Foxcroft is trying to determine the levels of hybridisation but he says wild cat sightings are rare. “It is quite difficult to ascertain the status of wild cats in Kruger as they are nocturnal.”

Llewellyn is collaborating with Dr Marna Herbst of SANParks and Jaco le Roux from Stellenbosch University. Their study is making use of data supplied by visitors to the park. “I have received a number of sightings from tourists over a period of about a year,” Llewellyn says. “These were usually from night drives, but some cats were also found during the day.”

A collared wild cat – one of the cats Dr Marna Herbst was studying in the Kgalagadi. Picture supplied by SANParks.
As an expert in invasive species, Llewellyn wants to find out how far hybridisation has spread into the park. Feral cats found roaming the park are destroyed on sight, as once in the park there is a very high chance of interbreeding with the wild cats. The only domestic animals allowed in the park are working dogs used by rangers, but they are kept under strict regulations.

Safeguarding the genetic integrity of the wild cat is a complex task. “Outside the park, one option is to try capture, neuter and return feral cats,” Llewellyn explains, “The reasoning here is that if a cat is removed, another will fill its home range and thus the problem is not solved. However, by returning cats which cannot breed, the home range is maintained and other cats are naturally excluded from the territory.” This approach is, however, costly and also needs to be ongoing.

Wild cat or plain old tabby?
Wild cats have a more muscular build than domestic cats. They have a thick, clearly banded tail, as opposed to the domestic tabby’s pointy tail. Other features of the African wild cat that distinguish it from domestic cats are: 
•    a rich reddish colour on the back of the ears
•    the characteristic markings on the body and tail
•    the length of the front legs, which causes the African wild cat to adopt a more upright sitting position and way of walking

Dr Marna Herbst, regional ecologist for SANParks, is currently doing her PhD on the African wild cat. She says that the best way to determine hybrids is through genetics due to the difficulty in judgment when in the field and from a distance.

Where to find Kruger’s elusive wild cats
The area with the most frequent sightings is around Satara.

Did you know?

The African wild cat (Felis silvestris lybica) is the ancestor of today’s domestic house cats. Domestication is believed to have happened around 3600 years ago in Egypt. Today there are 60 recognised breeds of domesticated cats.

Read more
Feral Cats as Invasive Species, Kruger-Times