Agile acrobats of Africa up the ante

The smallest wild cat in Africa is the Black Footed Cat. Its sleek, tawny fur is marked with bold, black spots and black rings around the legs, which provide this diminutive hunter with perfect camouflage, especially on moonlit nights. The Black Footed Cat was named for the patches on the undersides of its feet. Sandy in coat colour they sport dark spot markings with tails approximately 30 to 50% of their body length with 3-4 dark rings, tapering to a black pointed tip. They inhabit the arid steppes and grassland savannas of Botswana and Namibia and parts of the high plateau region of inland South Africa. They are known for their tenacity and unsociable disposition, often setting their ears back in an aggressive posture, an adaptation to hunting in areas with little or no ground cover. They live in holes in termite mounds or burrows abandoned by other animals and are known to frequent ant hills, which gives them their common name “Ant Hill Tiger”. They have a call said to rival the roar of a tiger, but one octave higher, which carries over long distances allowing them to communicate with others and locate their mates.

Black Footed Cats feed on rodents and shrews, small birds, large, soft-bodied insects, spiders, scorpions, small snakes, and geckos. They are capable of killing prey larger than themselves and can jump spectacularly to catch birds in flight. Every night they cover a distance of 5 to 16 km, often hunting in small circles and zigzagging between bushes and termite mounds.

Black Footed Cats are considered to be water-independent, deriving their moisture from their diet, rather than by actually drinking water. Perfectly adapted to their habitat, the Black Footed Cat is mainly in danger from humans because its natural appetite leads it into traps designed for other animals such as jackals. When left to live out its life in peace, the Black Footed Cat lives for about 10-12 years, though so shy and ferocious is this mysterious little animal that even this is not certain.

According to the Feline Conservation Federation, the number of these cats is very low. There are only 19 in zoo collections in the United States and only 40 around the world. But, on February 13, 2011 two male Black Footed kittens were born at the Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species in New Orleans, the first of their kind to be born from frozen embryos via in vitro fertilization. This birth is the latest advance in assisted reproduction for endangered species from the Audubon Nature Institute.

It is estimated that over 99% of all species that ever lived are extinct. Habitat degradation is currently the main human-made cause of species extinction, with agriculture taking the lead and urban sprawl, logging, mining, and some fishing practices following close behind. A 2003 review across 14 biodiversity research centres predicted that, because of climate change, 15–37% of land species would be “committed to extinction” by 2050. The good news is that this trend appears to have been reversed for the Black Footed Cat.

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