African civet (Civettictis civetta)
|Size||Head-body length: 67 - 84 cm (2)|
Tail length: 34 - 47 cm (2)
Ear length: 5.4 - 5.8 cm (2)
|Weight||9.5 - 20 kg (2)|
The African civet is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed on Appendix III of CITES (3).
A nocturnal, opportunistic mammal, the African civet (Civettictis civetta) is the largest African member of the Viverridae family, which includes genets, civets and linsangs. This species is easily distinguished by its stumpy front legs and its large hindquarters, which hold the rump high and the head low in an unusual posture characteristic of civets (2) (4).
The African civet has a wide head with a pointy muzzle, small eyes and small, rounded ears. It has a ‘racoon-like’ appearance with a black streak across the face and white on the forehead and along the sides of the muzzle. The legs, paws and upper side of the bushy tail tend to be black, and five incomplete white rings wrap around the tail, which is pointed towards the tip (2). Prominent white streaks edged in black extend from the African civet’s shoulders to behind the ears (2) (4).
The African civet’s fur can range from white to pale yellow and rusty-brown. Interestingly, no two African civets are the same, as each has a unique coat pattern of dark brown or black spots and splodges. The irregular coat markings are most prominent along the back and hindquarters providing excellent camouflage in forests as well as more exposed habitats (2).
When threatened, the African civet emits astonishingly deep growls and fearsome coughs, and it can double in size by fluffing out its fur and erecting a crest of long, black hairs along its spine. The crest hairs can be up to 12 centimetres long, and raising these hairs reveals a light stripe along the African civet’s back. It is presumed that this stance also functions to impress other civets (2) (4).
A widespread and abundant species in Africa, the African civet can be found from Senegal on the west coast to southern Somalia on the east coast. Its range extends south to include Botswana, Namibia and South Africa, although it is more restricted and generally only found in the north-eastern regions of these countries (1) (2).
The African civet also occupies the island of Zanzibar (1) (2) (4).
Occupying a variety of habitats across Africa, the African civet can be found in lowland and montane forest, swamp and even open savanna and arid areas, providing there are thickets or long grass to provide shelter during the daytime (1) (2) (4) (5). It has been recorded from sea level up to elevations of 5,000 metres on Mount Kilimanjaro (1). Although the African civet does not depend on permanent water sources, it is generally more common in areas alongside rivers (2).
An uncommon resident of deep primary forest, unless logging tracks provide access, the African civet exploits deforested and degraded areas despite the likelihood of being near human developments (1) (6).
A secretive, nocturnal species, little is known about the African civet’s habits in the wild (5) (6). It is a solitary species, mainly active just before sunset until midnight, and around sunrise. During the day, females and cubs are known to sleep in a nest, while male African civets and females without cubs will sleep in thick vegetation (2).
Being omnivorous, the African civet feeds mainly on fruit and millipedes, as well as other arthropods and small mammals (6). It is even known to raid domestic rubbish, and in southern Africa its diet may also include crabs and snails (2). Being an opportunistic feeder with a broad diet means that the African civet is a rather flexible species, enabling it to inhabit a range of habitats over a wide area (6).
Communal latrines or ‘civetries’, often found next to puddles on tracks and in clearings, are thought to be used by African civets in communication and to mark territory boundaries (2) (6) (7). Scats are left in an unburied pile in an area less than 0.5 square metres, and the African civet adds anal secretions when defecating to release a long-term scent (2).
The African civet is famous for the secretions from its perianal gland, known as ‘civetone’, which are traditionally used as an ingredient in perfume production. The glands appear as two swellings near the genitalia and are on average two centimetres wide and three centimetres long. The male African civet has slightly larger glands than the female and produces a stronger secretion (2).
The African civet has a keen sense of smell, and uses its secretions to scent-mark objects surrounding civetries and along its regular paths. Scent marks are usually between 31 and 39 centimetres from the ground and are often overlaid by other individuals, possibly to communicate reproductive condition and territoriality (4) (7).
Relatively little is known about the African civet’s reproductive behaviour in the wild (5) (6). The breeding season in southern Africa is from August to January, whereas on the east coast in Kenya and Tanzania the African civet breeds from March to October. Captive females are sexually mature after 1 year of age, whereas males mature slightly earlier, from 9 to 12 months. The female normally has its first litter aged 14 months, and may have 2 or 3 litters over a year, as the gestation period ranges from 60 to 71 days (2). A litter contains one to four young, born in a nest in a hole or hollow tree trunk (4). The newborn African civet is covered in soft, dark fur, but the coat pattern is unclear (2). Each cub feeds on the female’s milk using its own teat for around 6 weeks, and begins eating solid food before it is weaned from 14 to 16 weeks (2) (4).
The African civet is exploited for its perianal secretion, used as a fixative for perfume (2) (7). Even though synthetic alternatives have been available for over 60 years, it remains an important export commodity in several countries , including Ethiopia and Niger (1) (7). The African civet is commonly found in Nigerian bushmeat markets, where there is demand for its skin and white meat (1).
Rare strains of rabies may also affect the African civet, and it is thought the slender mongoose (Galerella sanguinea) may act transmit this disease in the wild (8).
In addition to the Botswana population being listed on Appendix III of CITES (3), which makes it an offence to trade the African civet without a permit, the African civet has an extensive range and occurs in many protected areas (1).
Investing in sustainable methods of collecting civet musk such as from marked sign-posts in natural habitats may eliminate the necessity to keep this species in captivity (7).
Find out more about the African civet:
IUCN/SSC Small Carnivore Specialist Group:
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- Arthropods: a major grouping of animals that includes crustaceans, insects and arachnids. All arthropods have paired jointed limbs and a hard external skeleton (exoskeleton).
- Bushmeat: a term used for the meat of terrestrial wild animals killed for subsistence or commercial purposes.
- Gestation: the state of being pregnant; the period from conception to birth.
- Gland: an organ that makes and secretes substances used by the body.
- Montane forest: forest occurring in the montane zone, a zone of cool upland slopes below the tree line.
- Nocturnal: active at night.
- Omnivorous: feeding on both plants and animals.
- Primary forest: forest that has remained undisturbed for a long time and has reached a mature condition.
- Territorial: describes an animal, a pair of animals or a group that occupies and defends an area.
- Territory: an area occupied and defended by an animal, a pair of animals or a group.
IUCN Red List (August, 2011)
- Ray, J.C. (1995). Civettictis civetta. Mammalian species, 488: 1-7.
CITES (August, 2011)
- Kingdon, J. (1988) East African Mammals: An Atlas of Evolution in Africa, Volume 3, Part 1. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
- Briggs, P. (2007) Uganda. [Bradt Travel Guides (5thEdition)], The Globe Pequot Press Inc., Connecticut.
- Ray, J.C. and Sunquist, M.E. (2001) Trophic relations in a community of African rainforest carnivores. Oecologia, 127: 395-408.
- Tsegaye, B., Bekele, A. and Balakrishnan, M. (2008) Scent-marking by the African civet Civettictis civetta in the Menagesha-Suba State Forest, Ethiopia. Small Carnivore Conservation, 38: 29-33.
- Bingham, J., Javangwe, S., Sabeta, C.T., Wandeler, A.I. and Nel, L.H. (2001) Report of isolations of unusual lyssaviruses (rabies and Mokola virus) identified retrospectively from Zimbabwe. Journal of the South African Veterinary Association, 72: 92-94.