Figure 1. African Golden cat Caracal aurata photographed in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, at 2400 m, just after rain at 5:40 pm 26 September 2009. The images were taken from a car using a hand-held digital camera
The African golden cat Caracal aurata is Africa’s most poorly known felid and the world’s second least known (Brodie, 2009). It is listed on CITES Appendix II and classified near threatened by IUCN (IUCNRedList.org accessed 2 December 2010). The African golden cat has traditionally been included in the genus Felis or Profelis (full synonyms: Profelis aurata and Felis aurata) but various molecular data confirm it is most closely allied with the Caracal Caracal caracal from which it likely diverged less than two million years ago (Johnson et al., 2006).
The African golden cat is a forest species. It is variable in size (5.5–18 kg), colour (golden, reddish brown and grey) and markings (with varying spots and blotches, Kingdon, 1977 and pers. comm.). It favours forest clearings and secondary regrowth where prey is more accessible (Kingdon, 1977). Animals have seldom been observed in the wild, and we know very little about their ecology and behaviour (Kingdon, 1977; Aronsen, 2009).
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (‘Bwindi’) is a steeply rugged World Heritage Site of just over 330 km2 in the Kigezi Highlands of Southwest Uganda. The area ranges from 1190 to 2560 m above sea level.
In Africa, two cat species are associated with the interior of humid forests, the leopard, Panthera pardus, and the African golden cat. In Bwindi, the leopard is absent (there is no evidence this species ever occurred in the forest J. Kingdon pers. comm.). The African golden cat is therefore the largest terrestrial carnivore in Bwindi. Local people recognise its presence: cats sometimes kill livestock and cat skins are common heirlooms. The African golden cat is only occasionally and fleetingly seen in the forest – many experienced field staff of the Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation (ITFC) have never seen it (ITFC staff various pers. comm.).
Bwindi was gazetted a Forest Reserve in 1948 and a National Park in 1992. Researchers at ITFC use the higher elevation southern road which cuts through the park as access to Ruhija from Kabale (the nearest major town).
On 26 September 2009, I was driving inside the park heading north to ITFC at Ruhija. It was 5:40 p.m. It had just stopped raining. At about 8 km from Nteko gate, we spotted an animal crouched on the road. The light was poor but we took photographs (Fig. 1). It was a reddish-brown cat with mangy grey fur on its back. It was slightly larger than a domestic cat (4–5 kg). It was eating a long-tailed mouse holding it between its front paws. It occasionally turned to look at us but showed no fear at our proximity. Even at only 10 m away, the cat calmly continued eating for 5 or 6 min. Finally, the cat glanced our way, stood up and jaunted briskly away along the road away from us. After about 30 m, it turned off the road and was lost from sight in the dense vegetation. The colouring and markings seen on the photographs were later enough to confirm that this was a small African golden cat (black behind the ears, white chin and light patches around the eyes, see Fig. 1).
Douglas Sheil. 2011. Notes and Records: An Encounter with an African Golden Cat Caracal aurata: One of the World's Least Known Felids. African Journal of Ecology. 19(3):367–369. DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2028.2011.01255.x