Black-footed Cat, Felis nigripes
Perhaps the smallest species of cat, black-footed cats average only three pounds (1.4 kg) at maturity, with males considerably larger (by 50%) than females. Overall, they are buff-colored with heavy black markings. The black-footed cat gets its names from the black soles of its feet. Some sources list a southern subspecies, Felis nigripes thomasi, but today many authorities question the validity of this subspecies.
Black-footed cats are nocturnal inhabitants of the arid lands of south ern Africa, and are typically associated with open, sandy and grassy habitats with sparse scrub and tree cover. They are specialists of short grass areas with an abundance of small rodents and birds.
Black-footed cats are native to arid regions of southern Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa and marginally in Zimbabwe.
The black-footed cat’s diet in the wild consists mainly of smaller mammals (54%), followed by birds (26%), and then larger mammals (17%). They are considered opportunistic feeders though and will also prey upon invertebrates, reptiles and amphibians as an additional food source. On average, a black-footed cat consumes about 8.5 ounces (240 g) of prey each night, which is roughly 15% of its body weight.
Black-footed cats are solitary except during mating and females with dependent kittens. Breeding season occurs between late July and March with the main mating periods taking place at the end of winter and August. Both male and female black-footed cats communicate through scent marking and loud calls, which are an octave deeper than other members of their genus. Females have one to three kittens that are weaned at about four months of age.
During the day, black-footed cats live in burrows dug by springhares and ground squirrels or in holes of termite mounds. It emerges at night to stealthily stalk its prey under the cover of darkness, flattening itself to the ground and taking advantage of any hiding places along the way. They have large home ranges relative to their small size comprising of six to 24 square kilometers, with the males covering a larger range than the females.
Threats to Survival:
Little is known about the black-footed cat’s status in the wild, and farmers seldom report capturing black-footed cats in problem animal surveys. Black-footed cats are rare compared to other small cats of southern Africa and appear to have a relatively restricted distribution. Their total effective population size may be fewer than 10,000 mature individuals with a declining population trend. Like most felid populations, some of the leading causes for decline include habitat loss, habitat degradation and persecution. Indiscriminate methods of predator control may be a significant danger as poison baits and traps set for African wildcat and jackal could easily be a threat to the black-footed cats as well. A similar threat is the poisoning of locusts and other pests, which are an occasional food source of the black-footed cat.
They have few natural enemies in agricultural areas except jackals and caracal, and decline due to competition may be more common than originally suspected. Habitat deterioration due to overgrazing by livestock is prevalent throughout the species’ range and may be their biggest threat as their prey base is lost. The recent conversion of sheep and cattle ranches to game farming may have a positive effect on their abundance.
The IUCN lists the black-footed cat as Vulnerable, while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists the black-footed cat as Endangered. They are listed on CITES Appendix I and consequently protected by national legislation across most of its range. Hunting of this species is banned in Botswana and South Africa.
An international studbook and European zoo management plan (EEP) is supported by the Wuppertal Zoo in Germany. A North American Regional studbook has been established at the San Antonio Zoological Park and a Species Survival Plan (SSP) is supported by Riverbanks Zoo. The goal of the North American Regional Collection Plan for this species is to increase the population to 75 individuals.
Black-footed Cat SSP Coordinator & Studbook Keeper:
Barbara Palmer, Denver Zoo
Small African Cat SSPs Education Advisors:
Kelly Miller, Palm Beach Zoo
Alma Ruffin, Riverbanks Zoo and Garden
This cat is not well studied with the only field study being conducted over the last decade by Alexander Sliwa. Sliwa studied black-footed cats on a South African game park managed for antelope rather than domestic livestock. He found that higher populations of cats were correlated with the conversion from domestic livestock, which degraded sensitive lands, to native ungulates that promoted the return of natural grasses and the cat’s prey.