The African civet is a large type of civet that lives throughout sub-Saharan Africa. It is the last surviving member of its genetic group and regarded as the largest civet-like species in the African continent. African civets are not felines, despite looking like and behaving like cats, but are more closely related to weasels, mongooses and other small carnivores. These animals are most well known for their musk that they secrete to mark their territory (called civetone), as used in manufacturing perfume for centuries, and for their striking black and white coloring, making them one of the easiest species of civet to identify.
An abundant and widespread species in Africa, the African civet is found from southern Somalia on the east coast, to Senegal on the west coast. Its range extends to include Namibia, Botswana and South Africa in the south, although it is more limited and generally found only in the north-eastern parts of these countries. These civets also occupy the island of Zanzibar. They live both in open country and in the forest, but seem to need a covering of thicket or tall grasses to provide daytime safety. It is rarely found in Africa’s arid regions but usually occurs close to water systems that are permanent.
Habits and lifestyle
African civets are mostly nocturnal, but are sometimes seen during the morning or the afternoon on cloudy days. Peak activity is 1-2 hours before sunset until around midnight. These animals sleep in dense grass during the daytime, only mothers with their young having a nest. The nests are located in holes that have been made by other animals or they are under tangled roots. African civets are solitary, except when they are breeding. There is limited knowledge of their habits because of their nocturnal and secretive lifestyle. Although solitary, they use a range of visual, auditory and olfactory methods of communication. Being territorial, they mark their territory when crouching and pressing their perineal glands against something.
Diet and nutrition
African civets are omnivorous. They eat mainly wild fruit, rodents, insects (grasshoppers, crickets, beetles, and termites), carrion, eggs, reptiles, and birds.
African civets are really only seen together during mating, which suggests that they might be polygynous. August to January, the warm, wet summer months, is when mating takes place, this time being favored due to the large numbers of insects. Females have 2 or 3 litters during a year, with gestation lasting for 60 to 71 days. Litters contain one to four young, and they are born in a nest made in a hollow tree trunk or a hole. Civet babies generally have fur when they are born, and are quite mobile. They can crawl at birth, and their hind legs support their body when they are 5 days old. They begin to leave the nest from 17-18 days, and at about 2 weeks they show their first indication of play behavior. The cubs each feed on their mother’s milk for about 6 weeks, then begin eating solid food, before weaning takes place at 14 to 16 weeks. A female African civet attains maturity at around the age of 1 year, while males attain it earlier, from 9 to 12 months.
African civets are threatened by both deforestation and habitat loss, and in the past, across the continent they have been killed by trophy hunters. One of the main threats is people’s desire for their musk, and they are also often sold in Nigerian bushmeat markets for their skin and white meat. They may also be affected by rare strains of rabies, probably transmitted by the slender mongoose.
According to IUCN, African civet is common and has a wide distribution range but no overall population estimate is available. Currently this species is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List.
They may affect predator populations, as items of prey for leopards, lions, large snakes and crocodiles.
Fun facts for kids
- African civets can make three kinds of sounds: a scream, a growl, and a cough-spit, but the most common sound they make is the "ha ha ha" they use when making contact.
- African civets can eat items that are either poisonous or distasteful for most mammals, including millipedes, highly-decayed carrion and the fruit of Strychnos.
- When threatened, these animals raise the long black hair on their backs in order to appear larger.
- Each African civet can secrete as much as 4 gm of musk in a week. For centuries, people have been collecting musk from these animals.
- The strong odor of an African civet’s musk can last for as long as 3 months.
- Each African civet’s body has a unique pattern of spots and streaks.
- ‘Afrikaanse civet’ is the name given to these animals in the local Afrikaan language.