by Richard Carroll, Rhoko Manager,
One of the joys of living in the centre of the forest is that, amongst all the hardships, you are often privy to sights and experiences you would normally only find by tuning into a nature documentary channel. Perhaps it is the fact that it isn’t such an easy and predictable task as that, which makes those moments all the more special even when they are only fleeting. It would seem that our forest conservation site is home to one more mysterious and beautiful inhabitant that we were previously unaware of. Stealing its way through the trees and undergrowth; offering little more, for the most part, than glimpses of its sleek and athletic form, is Rhoko’s secretive resident feline- the African Golden Cat.
African Golden Cat
The African Golden Cat (Felis auratus) is described as a powerful cat with evenly proportioned limbs, a relatively heavy build with black backed ears. Sizes, tail lengths and even colouration and coat pattern are described as variable but generally accepted as a reddish golden colour or smoky grey. The pale coloured underside is always spotted but differences in the patterns over the rest of the body occur in a seemingly geographical split. Individuals in the east of Africa are generally less spotted than those further west in the range, which spreads through central Africa from Sierra Leone to parts of Tanzania. The pattern of the spots ranges from fine freckles to large rosettes and from faint to bold. Captive animals are reported to have even changed colouration from red to grey and vice versa, it has been proposed that this also may occur in the wild. They are described as living mostly in lowland forest zones and feeding on rats, hyraxes, duikers and guinea fowl amongst other animals. The adaptations in its body suggest that it is accustomed to bringing down fairly powerful prey animals such as the red duiker, the golden cat itself can reach a head to tail length of 1.5m (1m head and body) and a weight of 18kg. There is little known about its other habits and social life though it is believed to follow regular routines and have a fairly small home range. The African golden cat is considered rare to vulnerable in its ecological status.
It has been nearly two years since my first encounter with what I suspected to be this enigmatic hunting cat. At the time, however, it was entirely unexpected and not a sighting of sufficient quality to make what felt like such an audacious claim. I was driving the 4WD vehicle down Camp Trail towards our education centre as night fell, delivering extra kerosene to our security personnel. Upon rounding the corner I was stunned to find directly in front of me, illuminated in the headlights, the fleeing hindquarters of what I felt was unmistakeably a wild cat. I say unmistakeably and must qualify that by saying I had spent over 12 months in recent years walking all day behind pumas and was fairly well acquainted with the back end of a feline! I had time to note the short fur covering the body and a long more heavily furred tail with a rounded tip and a ringed pattern. The markings at the base of the tail appeared to be a series of spots which extended over the hind quarters either side of the spine. The general colour appeared to be black or charcoal and a lighter shade of grey; unfortunately I was unable to see the head and forequarters of the animal before it broke back through the foliage and into the safety of the core area.
A few months later I was to be similarly excited and frustrated in equal measure when I stumbled across an unexpected visitor, but this time in main camp. I was just on my way back to my sleeping hut when my torch light caught the unmistakeable glimmer of eyeshine being reflected back at me from the bushes. ‘Eyeshine’ is the term given to the phenomenon of light being reflected back from the specialised cells coating the retinas of nocturnal animals’ eyes. The first thought which struck me was that it could be a duiker or perhaps some other larger mammal, until it moved. The pale green eyes reflecting back at me glided over the logs and fallen trees in the undergrowth and though, frustratingly, I could not discern enough detail of the body shape with my fading LED torchlight the movement could only be described as catlike. Yet the distance between the eyes and the height from the ground marked the intruder as being much larger than a genet or similar nocturnal predator. Despite my best efforts I was unable to see much more than this and had to chalk the experience up to another potential sighting without a definite confirmation.
Again a few months passed before I was approached by a visiting overnight tourist who asked me quizzically one morning “do you know if you have African golden cat here?” “Interesting that you should ask” I replied; “why?” “Because I think I saw one last night.” It seems that on his way up the path from the tourist accommodation huts to the toilet he had seen a large cat cross in front of him at the edge of the glare thrown by his kerosene lantern. Though he had not had time to see it in detail, his first impression had been of a dog sized feline, of which the African golden cat is the only option in this area. I related to him my previous experiences and allowed his sighting to join the growing number of potential encounters.
In November of last year a separate sighting was made by one of our patrolmen, Osam. Coming back from the forest one afternoon he excitedly claimed to have seen ‘leopard’ in the forest and reported this to Lisa. Lisa promptly showed him a picture of a leopard from the field guide book, to which he replied that it was like that but not with so many spots and the body was red. Without any prompting he was able to pick out a picture of the golden cat and confirm that this was what he had seen. The sighting was unusual in that he had come across the cat in the mid afternoon within the core area and had seen it clearly in daylight. His description of the size and coloration all fitted precisely with what was expected for the golden cat and as with the visitor’s previous sighting was a spontaneous report as we had never indicated to any person or staff that we thought we may have this species present in the area. Osam, when asked, said that he had seen this type of cat before; many years ago when he was still hunting prior to his employment with CERCOPAN, but only in the research area far from where is currently now the core area. Disconcertingly he added, with a look of distaste, that the meat was rather tough and not good for eating.
I myself was finally able to satisfy my own desire on this matter on January 1st 2009. After climbing down from the fallen tree from where we are able to make mobile phone calls, I was walking back to the education centre when the golden cat broke from the bushes to my left about 15m ahead of me and crossed the road before disappearing into the undergrowth to the right. For a fraction of a second, my mind and heart leapt and having perceive just the red colouration and long tail from my peripheral vision I thought ‘mangabey escape!’ . The prick of adrenaline was short lived however, being replaced by a smile and the sensation of blessed satisfaction as I witnessed clearly for the first time the African golden cat right in front of my eyes. It was a wonderful start to the year, but I am still holding out for the chance to see even more.
Chief Patrick at the Community Centre
The clearest sighting yet has been made since, by the oldest member of staff Chief Patrick; a skilled hunter in his younger days. I was telling him about my experience as we both sat at the education centre a few weeks later. I had hardly begun my tale simply mentioning that I had seen a cat here two weeks before, when he interrupted me to say that he had seen it 3 nights ago. “Really?” I asked him, “yes this one.. cat but big like dog; red all over but here” indicating his belly, “here it is white but with ‘bok, bok bok’.” With each softly explosive ‘bok’ he had pecked at the air with his hand to imitate the rosette pattern of the underside. His keen hunter’s eyes had picked out a detailed text book description of the golden cat’s pelage. He proceeded to tell me how the cat had appeared from the very place I had been about to describe to him in my sighting, and had walked to the front of the education centre where he was sat; stopping for a few moments apparently intrigued by the illumination from the lantern hanging by the entrance. Patrick had remained still waiting for it to pass by the side wall before collecting his torch and quietly creeping to the other side of the wooden building. Once there he shone the torch on the visitor and there they stood man and cat connected by a beam of light in silent contemplation of each other. After some time and seemingly unperturbed the golden cat turned and carried on its way along camp trail and into the shadows of the core area forest. Though I envy Chief Patrick his extended encounter, I can still take a great deal of pleasure from the few brief meetings I have had with this beautiful creature. It gives me a sense of pleasure to know that as I fall asleep to the deafening chorus of tree hyraxes, owls and cicadas there is another more silent denizen of the forest prowling somewhere close by; leaving me to feel honoured to be sharing their realm.