Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Who's who: northern Tanzania

In Africa there are ten species of wild cat. Three of these do not occur in Tanzania. They are: the jungle cat Felis chaus, sometimes known in Africa as the swamp cat, which is an Asian species just tiptoeing into extreme northeast Africa in Egypt; the sand cat Felis margarita which occurs widely through deserts and sub-deserts in northern Africa and central Asia, but nowhere south of the Sahara; and its counterpart the black-footed cat Felis nigripes which inhabits arid areas of the far south. It is worth following the links to these last two species just to marvel at their outrageous cuteness. As for the jungle cat, I hope we will meet it in person in India later this year. A fourth species, the African golden cat Profelis (sometimes Felis or Caracal) aurata, inhabits the Central and West African forest belt, just skirting northwest Tanzania, around Lake Victoria.

In the great national parks of northern Tanzania, therefore, there are six cat species, three big and three small (although, as discussed previously, in evolutionary terms the cheetah is a small cat). It is hugely unlikely that in the next two weeks I shall see all six, but I will certainly come close to all of them. Over the coming months, once I have travelled in search of cats in Africa and Asia, there will be much more discussion here of their status, conservation and future. For now, these six species are:


Lion Panthera leo

The largest African cat, the lion is also remarkable for being the only highly social cat (though see cheetah below) and the only strongly sexually dimorphic cat in the world (though males without manes are known and, exceptionally, females have been recorded with manes). The lion is capable of thriving in widely varied habitats and within modern history occurred over most of Africa and southwest Asia, as far east as India (where, as we shall see in March, a tiny remnant population survives). It is considered to have become extinct in Europe as recently as 2,000 years ago. Lions are largely active at night, spending much of the day sleeping in their prides. Their prey, pride size and behaviour vary greatly across their range of habitats. Related adult females, who come into oestrus and give birth synchronously, make up the core of the pride with a coalition of males (usually unrelated to the females, and sometimes to one another) having tenure over them until toppled by the next male coalition. Recent studies have tended to dismiss the widely held belief that male lions are lazy and inefficient hunters.

Lions by Jude Cavey

Leopard Panthera pardus

Though belonging to different subfamilies, the American puma and the Old World leopard have many similarities. Both are medium sized and relatively gracile. Both have huge ranges, covering vastly varied habitats, the puma from northwest Canada to Patagonia, from the high Andes to the Amazon, and the leopard across the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa, through parts of the Middle East and Central Asia, across South and Southeast Asia, to parts of the Far East. Both species also occur (or historically occurred) in the shadow of much larger and more powerful cats: the puma beside the jaguar in much of Latin America, and the leopard beside the lion in Africa and beside both the lion and the tiger in Asia. Leopards (but not pumas) partly avoid danger and competition from larger cats by taking to the trees. Needless to say, across their vast range leopards are hugely adaptable in terms of diet and habitat. They are also remarkably tolerant of humans, though they often pass virtually undetected, notably in India. Like the lion the leopard largely hunts at night. Black leopards have occurred in many of the subspecies across Africa and Asia but are most often recorded in the dense, dark rainforests of Southeast Asia and Indonesia. (Black jaguars also occur and the term black panther, which is not a correct name for either species, is often used to describe both.)

Leopard by Jude Cavey


Serval Leptailurus serval

The serval is a widespread medium-sized cat of the non-forest and non-desert regions of Sub-Saharan Africa, with a small range in North Africa. Unlike any of the other cats I might see in Tanzania, it is an African endemic. It is usually spotted and is strangely proportioned, with long legs, a short tail and very large ears (but don't mention them; it's very sensitive). Black animals occur, especially in highlands. The serval is a specialist in small grassland mammals, especially rodents, finding them by sound and leaping onto them in the manner of a barn owl dropping onto prey. The serval is largely crepuscular.

Caracal caracal caracal

The only cat whose common, genus and species names are all the same, the beautiful dun-coloured caracal is found widely across Africa (outside the Central and West African forest belt and the central Sahara), through the Middle East and western Asia, into northwest India. Often known as the desert lynx, and formerly included in the genus Lynx, it has recently been found to have closer genetic links (see what I did there?) with the African golden cat, which is sometimes placed with it in the genus Caracal. The caracal is lynx-like in size and shape and like lynxes it has prominent ear-tufts. It is a specialist in small and mid-sized mammals including hares, hyraxes and small antelope, though it will also take birds. The caracal is largely nocturnal.

Cheetah Acinonyx jubatus

As discussed above, the cheetah is one of two large cats which are, in evolutionary terms, small cats. The cheetah is - yawn, everyone knows this - the fastest land mammal, which is jolly unfortunate if you are a Thomson's gazelle. (If you ever fancy experiencing mammalian speed, find a friendly pod of Dall's porpoises in the Pacific and try to outrun them as they bow-ride your boat.) The cheetah occurs widely in eastern and southern Africa, with a much reduced population in the Sahel. In the Middle East and Asia it once occurred as far east as western India, but there are now only a handful of individuals remaining in Iran. Cheetahs hunt by day, preying, in their main eastern and southern African populations, largely on medium-sized antelopes, especially impala and gazelles. The cheetah's strange, leggy shape and loping gait are adaptions for short bursts of high speed. It the most highly social cat except the lion; females from the same litter often stay together for months after leaving their mothers, with brothers sometimes forming coalitions which last lifetimes.

Cheetah by Jude Cavey

Wildcat Felis silvestris

The wildcat has a huge range in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and western Asia. Consequently its habitat and prey are highly varied and many subspecies have been described. In Africa it occurs everywhere except much of the Sahara and rodents are its chief prey, with some larger animals also taken. Though there is argument over taxonomy, particularly of subspecies, it was wildcats from Africa which were domesticated; in appearance African wildcats are more similar to domestic tabbies than any other species.

So now you know: the cats my Naturetrek clients and I will be looking for in Tanzania in the next two weeks are the lion, leopard, serval, caracal, cheetah and wildcat. I will be writing in Tanzania every day, though how often I upload to my blog will depend on wifi in remote areas. There will be much more discussion of the status of cats in Africa on my return.

Thanks to my aunt Jude Cavey for the use of her beautiful photos from Kenya and Tanzania.

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