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The African civet

7 November 2013


www.leopard.tvThe genets and civets are all members of the mammal family Viverridae which contains 30 species. Civet-like ancestors are known to have lived at least 50 million years ago in East Africa and looked like long-nosed cats. Fossils of African civets have been found in India, where they lived some 4.2 million years ago, and they lived in die Olduvai Gorge of Tanzania about one million years ago. One group of ancestral civet-like animals gradually gave rise to the current civets of Eurasia and Africa, the genets, the binturongs of India and the linsangs of Africa some 45 million years ago, while a separate group gradually developed into the hyaenas and cats from some 40 million years ago. The mongooses had already developed from this same ancestral group some 55 million years ago.

The civets currently consist of four extralimital species of the genus Viverra, with one species in India; a second one in Burma, Cambodia, Laos, western Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam; a third one in Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia. the Philippines and Thailand; and a fourth one in India where it is separated from the nearest civets in Africa, which were also once called Viverra, by at least 4000 km. The African civet Civettictis civetta occurs from the Sahel south of the Sahara Desert southwards to the north-eastern part of southern Africa to a line through central Mozambique, the north-eastern part of South Africa, northern Botswana and northern Namibia. There are six known subspecies with Civettictis civetta australis in north-eastern South Africa. Three species of genet are the only other members of the family Viverridae in South Africa because the palm civet Nandinia binotata is a member of the family Nandiniidae. The African civet was originally described scientifically in 1776 by Schreber as Viverra civetta based on a specimen from Guinea, but it was renamed Civettictis civetta in 1915 by Pocock because it differed from the civets of Asia. Because a civet is not a cat, the common name civet cat is incorrect.

The African civet is a large, slender, cat-like animal with a pointed face that resembles that of the American racoon. The females are heavier than the males but both sexes have a body length of around 1.2 m and a long tail. An adult male has a mean body weight of 10.9 kg (range: 9.5 to 13.1 kg) as opposed to one of 11.6 kg (range: 9.6 to 12.7 kg) in a female. Some females can reach a weight of up to 18 kg. Individual African civets vary greatly in coat colour and pattern and are individually recognizable just as the spotted cats are. However, they all have a combination of black, grey and white patterns on the head, ears and neck; and black lower legs. In the Congo River Basin some 33 percent of the civets are black (melanism). There is a clear black band running across the face above the eyes and a whitish to greyish forehead. The sides of the body from the chest to the base of the tail have a distinct pattern of black markings that show as irregular spots, rosettes or bands on a greyish or whitish background. The hair is long and coarse and is raised as a crest on the middle of the back when a civet is being threatened. The under surface of the long tail is broadly banded in white or grey and the tip of the tail is broad and black. There are five toes on each foot, but the first toe is set back from the others and does not appear in a footprint.

In South Africa the African civet occurs in Limpopo, the eastern parts of Mpumalanga, Gauteng, the eastern edge of the North West province and the extreme north-eastern parts of KwaZulu-Natal. The habitat is forest or well-watered savannas with adequate cover. Civets do not occur in the arid southern and western regions or the winter rainfall areas.

The African civet is not arboreal and is a solitary and predominantly nocturnal animal that is particularly active just before and shortly after sunrise. It cannot climb well but uses regular paths along which to travel slowly with the head held low. The faeces is deposited in communal latrines that are known as civetries and which are usually located adjacent to footpaths and roads. These latrines are used frequently but can be abandoned for several months. Objects are scent-marked by a secretion from the everted perineal glands between the anus and genitalia. This secretion retains its strong smell for up to three months and was once used in perfume before it was replaced by synthetic compounds. Strong coffee that is scented with this secretion is regarded as a delicacy in some regions.

The civet is omnivorous and feeds on green grass, wild fruits, insects, centipedes, lizards, birds, frogs, fishes, mice and carrion. They may also occasionally prey on scrub hares and mongooses. When eating a bird the feathers are not plucked first as a cat will do. Prey is killed with a bite while running to weaken it, or a bite followed by a vigorous shake to damage the body. When a snake is caught it is often given a quick bite and then is thrown violently to the ground to stun it while the civet jumps out of the way to avoid being bitten by the snake. Fishes, frogs and aquatic insects may be caught under the water.

Knowledge of reproduction in a civet is scarce, but sexual maturity seems to be reached at an age of 12 months and a female will first give birth in the warm, wet, summer months when she is 14 months old after a gestation period of around 60 days. Litters contain two to five young that are bron in disused aardvark burrows, under loose rock piles or in similar cover. The young are born with open eyes.



Skinner, J D and C T Chimimba (Eds) 2005. The mammals of the southern African subregion, third edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp 412 - 416.

Turner, A 1997. The big cats and their fossil relatives: an illustrated guide to their evolution and natural history. New York: Columbia University Press.

Wozencraft, W L 2005. Order Carnivora. In D E Wilson en D M Reeder (Eds) 2005. Mammal species of the world: a taxonomic and geographic reference, third edition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, pp 554 - 559.

artikel by: Prof J du P Bothma


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