African Civet – Description, Diet, Personality, And Fun Facts

By Kevin Myers | 2023 Update

Meet the African civet – a captivating creature that uniquely straddles the line between cat and mongoose.

This nocturnal mammal, with its distinctive black and white striped coat, is the largest of the civet species and is a fascinating part of Africa’s rich biodiversity. 

Known for its secretions, used in the perfume industry, the African civet also plays an essential role in its ecosystem as both a skilled predator and an important seed disperser.

Scientific NameCivettictis civetta
Size12-18 kilograms; 70-85 cm in body length
Coat ColorGrayish with black spots or stripes
Facial FeaturesBlack mask-like marking around the eyes
TailLong, marked with black and white rings
HabitatSub-Saharan Africa, various habitats including grasslands, forests, and human-influenced areas
DietOmnivorous, feeds on small mammals, birds, insects, fruits, and more
ActivityNocturnal, primarily active during the night
Social BehaviorGenerally solitary, territorial, limited social interaction
ReproductionPolygynous mating system, females give birth to 1-4 young
LifespanAround 15-20 years in the wild, up to 20-25 years in captivity

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What is an African Civet

Origin and Evolution

The African Civet, also known as Civettictis civetta, is a native species to sub-Saharan Africa. They belong to the family Viverridae, a group of small to medium-sized mammals known as civets or genets.

Viverrids, including the African Civet, are considered primitive feliforms, a suborder that also includes cats – meaning they share a common ancestor with modern-day feline species. The divergence of the Viverridae family is estimated to have occurred in the Paleocene to Eocene epochs, approximately 60 to 34 million years ago, based on molecular data.

The civet family has evolved to inhabit a variety of habitats across Asia and Africa, with the African Civet specifically adapted to the diverse environments of the African continent, from forested areas to savannahs and even regions of human habitation. 

Is It a Cat Or A Raccoon?

Physical Features and Adaptations

1. Body Size and Structure

The African Civet is a robust animal, typically weighing between 12-18 kilograms and measuring around 70-85 centimeters in body length, excluding its long tail. Its body is designed for a terrestrial lifestyle but is also capable of climbing and swimming when necessary. 

2. Coat and Markings

One of the most prominent physical features of the African Civet is its unique coat. It has a grayish base with black spots or stripes that form an intricate pattern. This cryptic coloration helps the civet blend into its surroundings, offering a form of camouflage from both predators and prey.

3. Facial Features

The African Civet has a short, pointed muzzle, and its face is characterized by a black mask-like marking around its eyes, which contrast with its white fur. This creature also has small, rounded ears, which are excellent for picking up sounds in its environment.

4. Tail

The civet’s tail is long, accounting for almost two-thirds of its body length. It’s marked with black and white rings, aiding in camouflage and potentially serving as a signal during social interactions.

5. Legs and Feet

The African Civet possesses short but powerful legs. Each foot has five toes with sharp, retractable claws, which are useful for capturing prey and climbing trees. The soles of its feet are naked and provide a good grip for various terrains.

6. Teeth and Jaws

The African Civet has a set of sharp, carnivorous teeth, which are ideal for its omnivorous diet. The jaws are powerful and capable of crushing hard substances like seeds and the shells of small invertebrates.

7. Perineal Glands

A distinctive adaptation of the African Civet is its perineal glands, which produce a musky secretion called civetone. This secretion, which was historically used in the perfume industry, is primarily used for marking territory and communicating with other civets.

Behavior and Lifestyle

The African Civet leads an intriguing lifestyle, adapted to its diverse habitats across the sub-Saharan regions of Africa. 

Here are some key characteristics of its behavior and lifestyle:

1. Nocturnal Nature: African Civets are primarily nocturnal animals. Mostly active during the night, they venture out to forage for food. This nocturnal lifestyle helps them avoid some predators and also allows them to exploit food sources that may not be available during the day.

2. Solitary Living: These animals are generally solitary, with individual territories marked by scent markings from their perineal glands. These territories can overlap, but actual physical interaction between civets is relatively rare, except during mating season.

3. Omnivorous Diet: African Civets have a diverse diet, feeding on a variety of foods, including small mammals, birds, amphibians, fish, insects, fruit, and carrion. This opportunistic feeding habit allows them to adapt to various environments and food availabilities.

4. Skilled Hunters: Despite their somewhat cumbersome appearance, African Civets are skilled hunters. They use their keen senses of sight, hearing, and smell to locate and catch their prey.

5. Reproduction and Rearing: African Civets have a polygynous mating system where a male mates with multiple females. Females give birth to 1-4 babies after a gestation period of about 60-70 days. The young are born in a den, and the mother cares for them until they’re ready to establish their territories.

6. Self-Defense: African Civets have various defense mechanisms. When threatened, they can release a foul-smelling secretion from their perineal glands. They may also adopt an intimidating posture, raising the hair on their bodies to appear larger to potential predators.

Eating Habits

The African Civet is an opportunistic and omnivorous feeder, meaning it consumes a broad range of food items based on availability. 

Its diet includes both plant and animal matter, making it a crucial part of its ecosystem not only as a predator but also as a seed disperser.

1. Diet

1.1 Animal

In terms of animal matter, the African Civet consumes small mammals such as rodents, as well as birds, amphibians, reptiles, fish, and a variety of invertebrates like insects, crabs, and mollusks. They are skilled hunters, using their sharp teeth and claws to capture and kill prey. They also scavenge carrion when the opportunity arises, making them an important part of the clean-up crew in their ecosystem.

1.2. Plant

On the plant side, African Civets are known to eat fruits, berries, and seeds. They play an important role in seed dispersal as the seeds of the fruits they consume often pass through their digestive system undigested and are excreted in different areas, assisting in the propagation of these plants.

Interestingly, African Civets have also been known to raid farms and plantations, feeding on crops like bananas, coffee beans, and other agricultural produce, which can lead to them being viewed as pests by humans.

1.3. Water

In terms of water, African Civets drink regularly when water is available. However, they can still survive in relatively arid areas by obtaining moisture from their food.

2. Feeding Strategy

They have a unique feeding strategy where they move in a zigzag pattern while foraging, using their keen senses of smell and hearing to locate potential food sources. Despite being primarily nocturnal, they have also been known to forage during the day if food is scarce.

Reproduction and Lifespan

1. Reproduction Cycle

The African Civet is polygynous, with one male typically mating with multiple females. The females are selective and only mate when they are in heat, a condition that occurs roughly every ten days. Although mating can happen anytime throughout the year, there is usually a peak in births during the wet season.

2. Gestation and Birth

After mating, the female undergoes a gestation period of approximately 60 to 70 days. She will then give birth to 1 to 4 young, called ‘kittens.’ The birth usually takes place in a burrow or a hidden nest to protect the young from predators.

3. Early Life and Maturation

Newborn civets are well developed at birth, with their eyes open and a coating of fur. They are, however, dependent on their mother’s milk for the first few weeks. The mother is very protective during this stage. After about two months, the kittens start eating solid food and begin to venture out of the den.

By six months, the young civets have usually developed the full distinctive adult coat and are independent enough to establish their territories. They reach sexual maturity around one to two years of age.

4. Lifespan

In the wild, the lifespan of an African Civet is typically around 15 to 20 years. However, this can vary depending on factors such as predation, disease, and human interference. In captivity, where many threats are controlled, they can live up to 20-25 years. The longevity of African Civets is due in part to their adaptable diet and the range of habitats they can inhabit.

Distribution and Habitat

1. Distribution

The African Civet is widely distributed across sub-Saharan Africa. Its range stretches from Senegal in the west to Somalia in the east and southward to Namibia and the eastern regions of South Africa. They are absent from arid desert regions and rainforests but can be found in most other habitats within this range.

2. Habitat Preference

The African Civet is highly adaptable and can be found in a variety of habitats. These include grasslands, savannahs, lowland forests, and woodland areas. They are also known to inhabit areas with a dense undergrowth of shrubs and grass, which provides them with ample cover for hunting and hiding from potential predators.

3. Human-Influenced Habitats

Interestingly, African Civets can also thrive in human-influenced environments, such as farmlands and plantations. They are often found near water bodies and can survive in suburban areas where they can find adequate food and shelter. 

4. Altitude Range

While typically found in low-lying areas, African Civets can inhabit areas up to elevations of 2,000 meters, demonstrating their remarkable adaptability.

It’s worth noting that their distribution may vary within their broad range, influenced by factors like the availability of food, the presence of water sources, and the degree of human activity. Despite being widespread, like many wildlife species, they bear loss from habitat loss due to human encroachment and deforestation.

Predators and Threats

1. Natural Predators

In the wild, adult African Civets face threats from a number of larger predators. These include big cats such as lions and leopards, hyenas, large snakes, and crocodiles. For younger, smaller civets, birds of prey, and other carnivorous mammals pose a significant risk. The African Civet’s cryptic coloration and nocturnal habits serve as natural defenses against these predators.

2. Human Threats

Humans pose the most significant threat to the African Civet. Hunting is a major issue, with civets being targeted for their fur, meat, and the musk they produce, which has been historically used in the perfume industry. In some areas, they are considered pests because they can raid crops and poultry, leading to conflict with farmers.

3. Habitat Loss

Habitat loss due to deforestation and expanding human settlements is another significant threat. As their natural habitat shrinks, African Civets are forced into closer contact with humans, increasing the risk of human-wildlife conflict.

4. Disease

Like many wild animals, African Civets are susceptible to diseases and parasites. They can contract rabies and are susceptible to ticks, fleas, and other ectoparasites. These health issues can impact local populations, especially when combined with other threats.

5. Climate Change

The impact of climate change on African Civets is not fully understood, but it could potentially affect their habitat and food availability. Changes in temperature and precipitation patterns may lead to shifts in their distribution and behavior.

Conservation Status and Life Today

1. Conservation Status

The African Civet is listed as Least Concern on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. This designation is due to its wide distribution across sub-Saharan Africa and its adaptability to a range of habitats, including human-influenced environments.

2. Threats and Challenges

Despite this status, local populations of African Civets can be under significant pressure. Key threats include habitat loss due to deforestation and human expansion, hunting for their meat and fur, and persecution as pests. In certain regions, these factors may lead to local declines in civet populations.

3. Disease Susceptibility

African Civets are susceptible to certain diseases, such as rabies, and parasites, which can also impact their populations. In addition, they can serve as a reservoir for diseases that affect other wildlife, domestic animals, and even humans.

4. Legal Protection and Conservation Efforts

Legal protections for African Civets vary by country. In some places, hunting and trade in civets or their parts are regulated or banned, while in others, these protections may be lacking or not adequately enforced. Conservation efforts are generally focused on protecting habitats and enforcing anti-poaching laws.

5. The African Civet Today

Today, African Civets continue to be a part of the rich biodiversity of Africa. Their presence shows a healthy ecosystem, as they contribute to controlling pest populations and dispersing seeds. However, the ongoing threats they face highlight the need for continued conservation efforts to ensure these unique creatures continue to thrive in the wild.

5 Incredible Fun Facts About African Civet

1. Musky Perfume Ingredient

The African Civet is known for its musky secretion called civetone, produced by its perineal glands. This substance has been historically used in the perfume industry as a fixative to help scents last longer. It was highly valued, and at one point, civetone derived from civets was one of the most expensive animal products in the world.

2. Master of Disguise

The black and white markings on the African Civet’s coat are not just for show. This pattern provides excellent camouflage in the dappled light of their preferred habitats, helping them hide from predators and sneak up on prey.

3. Not Really a Cat

Despite sometimes being referred to as a civet cat, the African Civet is not actually a cat at all. It belongs to the family Viverridae, which is a separate lineage from felines. They are, however, part of the same suborder, Feliformia, which also includes other cat-like carnivores.

4. Omnivorous Opportunists

The African Civet is one of the few carnivores with an omnivorous diet. It eats a variety of foods, from small mammals and insects to fruits and seeds. This adaptability allows it to thrive in a range of habitats and makes it a crucial part of its ecosystem.

5. Social Communication

African Civets lead solitary lives, but they communicate indirectly through scent markings. By leaving their musky civetone in strategic places, they can send messages to other civets about their territory, reproductive status, and more. It’s like a social media network based entirely on smell!

African Civet FAQs

Q: Is the African Civet a type of cat?

A: Despite being sometimes called a civet cat, the African Civet is not a cat. It belongs to the family Viverridae, a separate lineage from true cats. However, they are part of the same suborder, Feliformia, which also includes other cat-like carnivores.

Q: What does an African Civet eat?

A: African Civets are omnivores, meaning they eat both plant and animal matter. Their diet is diverse and includes small mammals, birds, amphibians, fish, insects, fruit, and carrion. They are also known to raid farms and plantations, feeding on crops.

Q: Are African Civets dangerous to humans?

A: Generally, African Civets pose little threat to humans. They are shy and prefer to avoid human contact. However, if cornered or threatened, they can defend themselves with their sharp claws and teeth. Also, they can carry and transmit diseases like rabies, so it’s best to keep a safe distance.

Q: Why are African Civets hunted?

A: African Civets are hunted for several reasons. Their meat is consumed in some cultures, and their thick fur is used to make coats and hats. They are also hunted for the musky secretion they produce, which was historically used in the perfume industry.

Q: How long does an African Civet live?

A: The lifespan of an African Civet is typically around 15 to 20 years in the wild. In captivity, where many threats are controlled, they can live up to 20-25 years.

Q: Are African Civets endangered?

A: As of the knowledge cutoff in September 2021, the African Civet is listed as Least Concern on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. However, they face threats from hunting, habitat loss, and disease, which could impact local populations.