Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"
This time I feature what I consider one of South Africa's most beautiful mammals! This is an African Civet, Civettictis civetta. Sad to say, it is quite rare here and I haven't yet seen it in the wild. This is the largest African member of the Genet and Civet family, the Viverridae, reaching a head-to-tail length of over 1.5 m/5' and a bodyweight of 20 kg/44 lbs. Most civets are around 12 kg/26 lbs in weight, though. They are rather low in build, and trot along with the head stretched forward and hanging slightly downward.
Civets and genets are reminiscent of the earliest ancestors of what are considered the more 'advanced' carnivores such as cats, dogs and bears. Most genets are long-bodied and short-limbed, such as these early animals which probably were arboreal. The civet is larger and more dog-like, but still very generalized. It is not a very efficient hunter. It isn't very fast, and doesn't have much endurance. It occurs solitarily, so there's no cooperative hunting behavior. Its jaws aren't very strong and its teeth not very specialized, so that it has a hard time killing anything much larger than a rat. While the cat-like genets have sharp, retractile claws, the more dog-like civet has blunter, non-retractile claws.
Today most genet and civet species are found in tropical rainforests, woodlands and savannahs. This habitat is still very much the same as the warm forests at the start of the Age of Mammals in which the first carnivores evolved. In this kind of environment they are still quite effective, and quite diverse … they definitely haven't stopped evolving. They use trees and bushes as shelter and will keep out of the way of the larger carnivores. They are almost all nocturnal, sneaking about under cover of darkness. Some have specialized diets, several having become fruit eaters. But the African civet has taken generalization to a remarkable level …
Extreme Omnivore with a Stomach of Steel
The African civet eats almost anything it finds. Though a carnivore by classification, it eats a lot of vegetable matter. Civets are especially fond of fruit. They'll eat fallen fruit, and though they don’t climb very well, they will clamber onto low, stout branches of Fig Trees to get at the figs. They will chew fresh, green grasses and shoots, and will dig up roots and tubers. They also eat quite a lot of insects and other invertebrates. Although not very fast, they do manage to catch small mammals, birds, lizards and other reptiles, and frogs. They'll also eat carrion and roadkill, when they can find it.
What is astonishing about the civet's diet, though, is that it eats things that aren't really supposed to be edible! It must have a very strong digestive system and constitution to cope with some of the things it ingests. These include poisonous fruits such as Strychnos trees and shrubs (from which the poison strychnine comes); poisonous toads and frogs; venomous snakes like puff-adders; poisonous millipedes; highly unpalatable 'stink-locusts' and hard-shelled beetles. It therefore takes omnivory to quite an extreme! In addition to what it can cope with eating, it is also able to cope with not eating: it can fast for as much as 2 weeks without ill effect.
Although it is an opportunistic generalist, the civet does have some special tricks when hunting. Its method of subduing venomous snakes is to rapidly bite at them and then fling them sideways, before the snake is able to strike – and doing this repeatedly until it is dead. It will catch small mammals by silently, slowly stalking them, then rushing at them. It kills by biting deeply and shaking its prey violently, then dropping or tossing it. It can, when pressed, kill prey as large as rabbits and hares, but with difficulty. It often hunts fish, frogs and other aquatic creatures in shallow water. It catches these by dipping its head into the water and grabbing them in its mouth. Any fairly large prey item must be thoroughly chewed by the cheek teeth, or torn into strips using the teeth and claws together, before the civet can swallow it.
This is the thing I wonder about a lot … who ever first thought of taking the smelly, sticky stuff that comes from a civet's butt and using it in perfume? But it has actually been done and perhaps still is. Civets copiously exude a variety of odoriferous secretions from glands in and around the anus, which they use to mark their territories. They rub it on trees and rocks, and the scent also goes onto their dung middens, augmented by urine. They especially favour important spots in their ranges, such as trees that bear fruit, or beacons at path crossings.
For some reason people did indeed think of it, and try it. The substance called civetone is harvested from the perineal glands of civets kept in captivity. It is a process that is painful and probably also humiliating to the civets, and the conditions in which they are kept are often cruel as well. This civetone is then used in the perfume industry, not because of any intrinsic fragrance of its own, but as a fragrance-enhancing fixative for scented compounds extracted from flowers. Today however civetone or something like it can be produced synthetically. But there are some people who apparently still want 'the real thing'.
At least civets are not hunted for their coats, these being coarse rather than soft. But this coarse coat is marked with beautiful patterns. These vary a lot both geographically and individually. The coat is greyish to brownish, marked with bold black spots and lines, both vertical and horizontal. There is usually a prominent black-outlined white band along the side of the neck. The face is marked with a black 'mask' over the eyes, and white sides to the muzzle. The hind surface of the ears are also boldly black and white. The tail is bushy and all along the back and neck there is a mane of long hairs. This mane can be erected, mostly as a threat display to intimidate other predators, or other civets intruding in its territory. This display is given side-on, which accentuates the height of the mane as well as the bold body pattern of the civet.
So both scent and visual signals are important to civets. But they also produce a variety of sounds! Being somewhat cat-like as well as dog-like, it is not surprising that they can make mewing as well as barking vocalisations! Babies miaow, as do females during mating. The youngsters make a soft contact call, something like 'duff-duff-duff', to let their mom and siblings know where they are. Adults may utter a 'woof' when spotting danger, prior to running away. Often, though, when a threat approaches, they will lie down and keep still, trying to remain inconspicuous. But if the threatening animal comes closer, they may suddenly and noisily leap out and run away, or they might stand their ground, hissing and spitting. They will scream when fighting with each other, and snap at each other with an audible clacking of the teeth. In captivity they will growl and bark loudly in response to sudden movements by their captors.
Secure but not Abundant
African civets have suffered some reductions of their range as well as numbers because of human activities. Though as I said they rarely catch anything bigger than a rat, they are often suspected of preying on poultry or young lambs. Although they can eat much poisonous stuff in the wild, they are not immune to the poisoned bait some farmers put out for them and other mammalian predators. Much of their habitat has also been turned to farmland. Today they are only found in the far north and northeast of South Africa, mainly in the Kruger National Park where they receive full protection. But they are still very widespread in Africa, occurring from dense rainforest to dry woodland and savannah, so long as there is some shelter like the trees and bushes that grow along rivers or on rocky hills. Yet, in my opinion this lovely animal should receive much more protection and encouragement, not just for its own sake, but also so that more people will have the opportunity to glimpse one of these fascinating creatures in the wild!