Rare African Golden Cat Kittens Photographed for the First Time

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©. David R. Mills

The African golden cat is the continent’s least studied cat, because it lives in dense tropical forests and seems to be particularly skilled at avoiding human encounters. To better understand these predators, researchers in Gabon and Uganda have been setting camera traps. The resulting photos have helped estimate the population size of the African golden cat, and have also captured images of something special—kittens.

Researcher David R. Mills has studied golden cats in Uganda since 2010. He told TreeHugger that out of 300 photos of golden cats taken over the course of over 18,000 trap days, just four images of kittens have been captured. The photos were taken in Kibale National Park, in a chimpanzee tourism area called Kanyanchu.

While many of the cats have a reddish golden color, the species may also have grey coloring, and less commonly a black or chocolate brown color. The photos might suggest that kittens can have different coloring from their parents.

“It seems from our study that golden cats occur in both main colour phases [grey and golden] in roughly equal numbers in the park,” said Mills. “So little is known about these cats. We can only speculate at this point about kitten colour. I would tend to assume that kitten colour is also evenly divided, but there could be colour change as we see with other species.”

To learn more about Golden cat reproduction, Mills said that GPS collars might be necessary for a more in-depth study. We can’t tell too much about parent and kitten behaviour from the photos alone.

African Golden Cats

© David R. Mills

However, the photos do show energetic little cats bounding along. “I used to study lions and lion cubs are the same. It's the energy of youth,” said Mills. “I'm not sure we can tell much except that they do apparently become mobile and move with their mother when they are fairly small.”

The cameras are set along hunting trails that are thought to be used by the cats, but because photos of the kittens are rare, Mills suggested that mothers with kittens tend to avoid these trails. Or perhaps the “kittens tend to run amok in the bush when their mother is walking on the trail and are therefore missed.”

African golden cat (Caracal aurata)

© David R. Mills

Mills' research is supported primarily by the nonprofit conservation organization Panthera, as well as the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa.

African Golden cats are listed as “Near Threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and sadly the population is thought to be decreasing. The rareness of sightings makes it difficult to get a precise measurement of the total population, but it's known that these cats face a number of threats.

Human hunters are a part of the problem. Golden cats "are targeted in Central Africa, but even in Uganda, where they are not targets, they are caught in snares,” Mills said. “Two snared cats were found in the park while I was there. Who knows how many went undetected.”

But the bigger threat may be habitat loss. “It may be that they can cope with a certain level of logging, but not clear cuts. Therefore unrestricted logging is probably their greatest threat,” said Mills. “These cats are forest dependent. They will not survive without forest.”