School of Life Sciences

Secret World of Africa’s Small Carnivores Explored in PhD Research

Secret World of Africa’s Small Carnivores Explored in PhD Research

The African golden cat (Caracal aurata) is an elusive, rare and seldom studied small carnivore endemic to tropical Africa. Increasingly threatened by habitat degradation, loss and fragmentation, and by unsustainable hunting, it caught the attention of conservationist and researcher, Dr David Mills, whose subsequent research earned him a doctorate.

Under the supervision of UKZN’s Dr Luke Hunter and Professor Rob Slotow, Mills was awarded his PhD in Conservation Ecology for work done on the Ecology and Conservation of the African Forest Carnivores: Niche Partitioning in the Absence of Apex Predators.

Mills studied the small carnivore community in the tropical forest ecosystem of Kibale National Park, Uganda, where his work focused on African golden cats which are only found in the tropical forests of Africa. ‘We know very little about golden cats,’ said Mills. ‘The African forest carnivore community as a whole is relatively unstudied, so we were starting with a nearly blank slate.’

African golden cats are related to, and look very similar to, caracals which are found in South Africa.

His study was based on remotely triggered camera trap surveys and vegetation surveys. First, he documented habitat preferences for each species and the time of day each was most active. Then he looked at interactions between golden cats and the other carnivores in the forest. ‘Leopards are no longer found in Kibale,’ explained Mills. ‘Golden cats are therefore the largest remaining mammalian carnivore.

‘Larger carnivore species can sometimes interfere with the behaviour of smaller ones, forcing them to use other habitats, to be active at different times of day, or to avoid areas all together,’ said Mills. He compared similar species – golden cats and servals, two species of genets, and three species of mongoose – to see if similar species were segregating their use of space and time. ‘We found that smaller species do not appear predictively to avoid golden cats by avoiding certain areas or times of day,’ said Mills. ‘They probably avoid them in a more reactive way when they sense their presence. Habitat and temporal partitioning was more prevalent between similar species.’

Mills explained that one of the main threats to all species in African forests was deforestation. His study took place in a forest that was entirely surrounded by deforested farmland. ‘I looked at the carnivore community inside the forest and in farmland to determine which species could adapt to deforestation and whether or not they changed their behaviour to survive in farmland,’ said Mills.

He found that the carnivore community changed significantly across this hard forest boundary. Golden cats were the most sensitive species and were not found in farmland, whilst African civets were the most adaptable and were found in both habitats. His conclusion was that deforestation completely reshaped the small carnivore community.

As part of his research, Mills also calculated the population densities of golden cats and civets. To do this, he surveyed another forest in Uganda where leopards still existed, as these predators in particular kill golden cats and he wanted to see if their absence in Kibale had an impact on the population size. However, contrary to similar studies in North America, he found no evidence that leopards significantly impacted golden cat or civet populations.

Mills was motivated to study golden cats because of the deficit of research done on them to date. He soon discovered a similar paucity of scientific research on other species in the forest, including African palm civets, servaline genets, and even African civets, which are found across Africa. ‘I spent several years studying leopards in the desert in Botswana,’ said Mills. ‘But, I love the African rain forest and wanted to fill some of these knowledge gaps in a guild that has always fascinated me, in a habitat that I love.’

His study highlighted the need to maintain a minimum of forest habitat for small carnivore species. ‘While some of these species are resilient and can survive when forest is converted to farmland, some of them, particularly golden cats, are highly sensitive to deforestation and are extirpated when forest is removed,’ he explained. ‘Maintaining intact African forest carnivore communities will require designating connected forest patches of significant size. They need relatively undisturbed areas within forests in order to move freely.’

‘The small carnivore community endemic to Africa’s tropical forests is extremely diverse and poorly understood. I hope this study inspires others to investigate more species and carnivore communities endemic to the Congo basin,’ said Mills.

Looking to the future, Mills has set his sights on a career in conservation management. Having spent six years in Khutse Game Reserve, Botswana, working with human wildlife conflict, he plans to take the scientific skills he has acquired and apply them to developing robust conflict resolution and management practice.

Mills acknowledged Panthera for providing funding and equipment and WCS Uganda for funding and logistical support during his research. He also thanked Andy Plumptre and the WCS team, and his research assistant, Sam Isoke ‘who did an amazing job helping me to place and monitor cameras and supervising vegetation data collection.’

Finally, Mills singled out his parents for always supporting his ‘crazy dreams of working with wildlife in Africa’.

In his spare time, Mills enjoys wildlife photography, while hiking and being out in nature rank high on his list of favourite leisure activities.

*The species in the image are: A) African golden cat Caracal aurata, B) Serval Leptailurus serval, C) African civet Civettictis civetta, D) African palm civet Nandinia binotata, E) Servaline genet Genetta servalina, F) Rusty-spotted genet Genetta maculata, G) Large grey mongoose Herpestes ichneumon, H) Marsh mongoose Atilax paludinosus, I) Slender mongoose Herpestes sanguineus.

Words:Sally Frost

Photographs: Sebastian Kennerknecht and David Mills/Panthera/WCS