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International Wildlife

Stalking The BLACK-FOOTED CAT

Stalking The BLACK-FOOTED CAT – wild cats in South Africa

A persistent biologist provides the first look into the nocturnal life of a pint-sized predator in South Africa

Every muscle in Lamu’s small, wiry body tightens. She is now 40 minutes into a nighttime stalk, and her snakelike tail swishes violently as she closes in on a black bustard bedded down, chickenlike, in the brick red sand of the Kalahari Desert. I hold my breath.

Lamu is a black-footed cat, one of the least-known felids in the world, and as a bright moon bathes this arid landscape in a natural spotlight, I am able to watch her hunting behavior. The bustard opens one eye warily and for a fraction of a second looks as if it is about to erupt skyward with the insultingly loud scream I have witnessed so frequently before. But Lamu moves fast. Planting her tiny black feet into the ground, she leaps, snagging the bustard as it attempts to fly. The bird, half Lamu’s weight, struggles only for seconds before the predator’s needle-sharp teeth break its neck.

Black-footed cats are dwarfs in the cat world–2 to 3 pounds for females, 3 to 5 pounds for males. What we know about them comes mostly from anecdotes, many prompted by their fierce behavior when cornered by dogs.

Bushmen suspect, incorrectly, that they are able to kill giraffes by piercing their jugulars, for instance, and as with most of the other small cat species that roam the world, their secretive habits have prevented us from learning about their behavior and ecology in the wild. I was determined to change that, and for the last five years I have followed radio-collared black-footed cats through their busy nights. As a result, I have observed these little-known creatures more than any other person on Earth, in the process building a picture of what this diminutive cat is really like and particularly how it hunts.

My relationship with Lamu began on a large game farm in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa, where the three dry landscapes of the grassveld, the dwarf shrub steppe of the Karoo and the red sands of the Kalahari meet. I had come to know this area intimately while studying nocturnal aardwolves for a three-year doctoral thesis. In those hundreds of nights following aardwolves, I caught sight of the blue reflecting eyes of black-footed cats only for seconds before they turned and slinked away, low to the ground. I knew then that I wanted to learn more about these obscure predators, and thus began an ongoing study in the arid lands of South Africa that was to include two eventful years with Lamu.

I first met this remarkable cat in 1993 when I captured her as part of a plan to radio collar nine other individuals so that I could follow them to begin to understand their secretive lives. She was petite, but very pretty, with a sleek, tawny and black-spotted coat, and I was amazed how quickly she accepted the presence of my 2-ton 4×4 pickup truck rumbling behind her. I named her Lamu, in part because she didn’t run very far when I followed her to a den–almost appearing lame.

That same night, minutes after I’d strapped a radio collar on her and my immobilizing drug had worn off, she trotted off in effortless style. Zigzagging around the area’s low dwarf shrubs, she quickly surprised a hairy-footed gerbil feeding on grass seeds. There was no struggle when she broke its neck a split second later–no long cat-and-mouse play.

Strangely, Lamu did not eat the gerbil but carried it off–with me in pursuit in my truck. After traveling half a mile, she depressed her ears, lowered her head and uttered a soft contact call. Her single kitten, whom I was to name Rani, came running from a grass tuft with her tail high up in the air. In one fluid movement, Rani streaked past her mother and grabbed the gerbil. With typical black-foot table manners, the youngster gobbled the head first, then swallowed the rest of the body in one go. Now I knew why Lamu had accepted my presence so quickly: Her concern for her hungry kitten must have been greater than her fear of my vehicle.

As I watched, Lamu briefly groomed her blood-stained chest then quickly trotted off to hunt again. In the course of the night, she caught three more mice and two larks and brought them all back to Rani. She also fed herself: Two hours before dawn, she returned to a black bustard carcass she had hidden previously under sand and grass, safe from scavengers. She ate her fill, an enormous amount for such a small animal. By weighing what remained of the bird after she’d finished, I calculated that she had consumed a half pound of meat, equivalent to one-fifth of her own body weight.

In the weeks to come, Lamu increased her hunting effort even more, belying the original meaning of her name. Whatever the weather condition–from violent thunder and dust storms to days of clear, calm skies–she always set out at sunset. By night’s end, with the rising sun peering again over the flat horizon, she returned to any of various dens originally dug in the hard-baked soil by nocturnal rodents called springhares. Clapper larks often mobbed her along the way.

During Lamu’s busy 10- to 14-hour nights, I stayed hot on her heels, just 30 to 100 feet behind her. My right arm rested on the truck’s open window as I held a spotlight which I shone for hours on end right behind her into the dark nights, my eyes straining along the beam. With my other limbs I performed a peculiar dance: My left hand steered, shifted gears, operated a dictaphone or binoculars, or switched between radio channels and two antennae for tracking; my legs and knees alternatingly worked the gas and clutch and helped to steer around gaping aardvark holes or looming termite mounds and rocks. At sunrise, I fell from my vehicle cramped and covered in fine red dust or countless mosquito bites. In winter, my numb fingers ached with the cold.

Despite the conditions, I always felt exhilarated following Lamu on her hunting forays–knowing that few of the world’s 17 other smaller cat species would ever allow a human being to share their night. I was a little less exhilarated when by about 4 am, almost having completed the full night, I would ride into a mud hole, breaking into a 7-foot-deep aardvark tunnel, or hear my tire exhale its air, punctured by a hand-long acacia thorn. At least the ensuing exercise of digging myself out or changing the tire would wake me up. On one occasion, I returned to my hut with half-shut eyes, sleepwalking to the bathroom to brush my teeth, only to be greeted by a yellow cape cobra with fully spread hood.

On one of these nights, Lamu caught 28 mice and carried 14 of them back to Rani (usually after her fifth mouse or bird Rani started playing with her food). While ferrying prey back to the den, Lamu walked, stalked and trotted 6 miles, as recorded from my truck’s odometer. With her zigzagging between bushes and grass tufts, doubling back and even hunting in circles, that distance could easily have been triple my crude measurement. In all, during my first year of driving behind Lamu, she stayed within an area of 4.7 square miles.

I also followed the resident male in her area–an animal I’d named Aris. Aris roamed 10 square miles. Although Lamu did not share her territory with other adult females, Aris’s realm overlapped that of three other females beside Lamu. Both Lamu and Aris often stopped at conspicuous grass tufts and at dens and termite mounds to direct a fine mist of urine backwards, leaving their individual signatures to lay claim to this area and to attract and find each other in the winter mating season.

Night after night, I was fascinated by Lamu’s persistence, tenacious hunting techniques and large variety of prey. Most commonly, she caught small rodents (8 species) and small birds (15 species), but sometimes she took hares larger than herself and birds as heavy as the black bustard. I also watched her scavenging for four nights on a stillborn springbok lamb. Gradually, I came to understand how Bushmen had come to have such great respect for this little predator. She didn’t shy away from nasty biting and stinging prey like scorpions, solifuges (fast-running spider relatives), snakes or even an African giant bullfrog, which weighs up to a pound and comes equipped with formidable fighting “teeth.”

Often, she took on other animals she met at night, including those much bigger than she. Once she jumped with bared claws and fangs into the face of a black- backed jackal–an animal eight times heavier than she. Other times, she barely gave an eye to fearsome spotted eagle owls that hunt from their perches on fence poles.

Perhaps because of her attitude, she sometimes hugely overestimated her hunting prowess. She meticulously stalked springbok lambs that in their first weeks of life were lying in grass waiting for their mother’s return but were much too big to be overpowered once they struggled to their feet. The biggest prey I watched Lamu attack was a male ostrich, weighing 180 pounds. She stalked this black mountain of feathers as he sat on his nest, creeping up to him flat on the ground for more than half an hour. When she was ready to pounce, the giant bird got up, revealing monstrous feet–longer than Lamu’s body–and towering for a second 6.5 feet above her before he bolted in a cloud of dust. Standing bedraggled, Lamu shook her head in frustration and trotted off.

Experiences like that convinced me that pound for pound, black-footed cats are as bold and fierce in their pursuit of prey as the anecdotes and folktales suggest. I never saw one of my study animals within 30 miles of a giraffe (no giraffes are kept on the game farm), and my research confirms there is no way this tiny tiger would take on any prey that large. But in the spirit of the Bushman legend, I did see a species fighting tooth and nail for its survival in a harsh environment full of competitors and larger predators.

Through it all, I was rewarded by Lamu’s trust. By late September in year two of my study, she was getting gradually heavier, pregnant from mating with Aris. Two months later, I parked in front of her den, which was inside the top of a weathered, hollow termite mound. That night she stayed in the den. The next evening, shortly after Lamu left, I peered inside the hole, and two furry bundles hissed and spat at me. Their eyes were still closed, but the newborns were fiercely determined to put up a good fight, just like their mom.

Particularly during the hot weeks, I was always close to exhaustion as I followed Lamu, and I never slept more than five hours. The last night of my field expedition in 1995 offered a respite, however. After midnight, Lamu licked herself and then bedded down at a hole that promised to produce a fat mouse. Overcome by the gathered-up fatigue, I fell asleep and dreamed of Lamu sitting on my chest purring like a house-tiger. Minutes later, I woke with a smile and looked out of my window. Lamu, with her paws folded under her chest, was only 6 feet from my vehicle’s tire. Perhaps she had come to say good-bye.

Alexander Sliwa is a German zoologist specializing in the behavior and ecology of small nocturnal carnivores. When he returned to South Africa in 1996, Lamu was gone, but her daughter Rani had taken over her territory, hunting with the same strong will to survive as had her mother.

Fighting tooth and nail to survive in a harsh land, the black-footed cat is as fierce as predators many times its tiny size

At a Glance:

Black-Footed Cats

Description: Smallest African wild cat; shoulder height 6 to 10 inches. Body marked with black lines and spots; background color cinnamon buff to tawny; feet have black soles.

Range: Most restricted range of all African cat species. Endemic to the southern African subregion: South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and marginally into Zimbabwe.

Prey: Anything it can overpower, but mostly rodents (70 percent). Remainder is primarily birds, but also takes arthropods and larger prey, such as hares, up to 5 pounds.

Status: Secretive and hard to census; rare and localized. Listed under CITES Appendix I, which restricts its trade.

Conservation issues: Conserving adequate favorable habitat is a priority, but the species’ opportunistic eating habits also pose problems. The cats’ main stronghold is now probably farmland, and they are vulnerable to insecticides sprayed by farmers to poison locusts, which the cats eat in masses. Likewise, black-footed cats die when they scavenge poisoned carcasses set out by stockmen to target small livestock-killing carnivores such as black-backed jackals and caracals.

COPYRIGHT 1999 National Wildlife Federation

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group