Colours of Wildlife: Cape Fox
Created | Updated Dec 29, 2019
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!"
Here you have a Cape Fox, Vulpes chama, surely one of South Africa's cutest carnivores … you might even call it a 'chama'! It is a true fox, quite closely related to the red foxes of Europe. It is about the size of a cat, reaching a bodyweight of 2.5-3.5 kg/5.5-7.7 lbs and an overall length of 90 cm/3". Its fur on the back and main body is grizzled grey and rufous, and it has cream-coloured underparts. It has darker markings around its eye and muzzle. It has a very bushy tail with dark brown or black-tipped hairs. In winter, its fur becomes longer and more silvery-looking; in Afrikaans it is called a 'Silwervos' or 'Silver fox'. The species occurs only in southern Africa, reaching its northernmost limits in southwestern Angola. It lives mainly in dry, open areas, including semi-desert, and even the high mountains of Lesotho. It favours the expanses of grasslands around the edges of 'pans', which are large, flat areas that become filled with shallow, temporary lakes only in years of exceptional rainfall.
True foxes have had difficulty establishing themselves in Africa. The group is more typical of Europe, Asia, and the Americas. In Africa, they are almost completely absent from the tropics, being found in and around the Sahara Desert and (in the case of this species) the dry subtropical deserts of Southern Africa. In these desert-like environments they can compete effectively with the less hardy African predators, but in the lush savannahs and forests they can't hold a candle to cats, other dogs, genets, civets and mongooses.
Cats of the Dogs
These foxes are in many ways like cats, though members of the dog family. They are very graceful and dainty with soft, dense fur, fairly short legs, great agility, nocturnal habits, and a solitary rather than communal lifestyle. They are very secretive and have not been much studied. By day, they hide in the shelter of bushes or clumps of grass, or in holes in the ground. They come out to feed in the evening and return in the morning; they can most easily be seen around dusk and dawn. They might take over the holes of Aardvarks or Springhares but are very good diggers themselves. They sometimes compete with Meerkats for holes. Though the meerkats are smaller, they have strength in numbers, and a gang of them may overwhelm individual foxes.
While cape foxes do defend territories, these in practice often overlap. Rarely, two family groups will share a territory. The fox will mainly scent-mark and defend a small region around its shelter, but will roam beyond this while seeking food, when it might indeed encounter other foxes. It communicates with whines and chirps; when alarmed it gives a loud, high-pitched bark; when threatened it growls and spits. It raises its tail to show excitement.
Foxes are actually more dog-like in their feeding habits. Cats are almost exclusively carnivorous, but these foxes are quite omnivorous. They catch small critters like mice, birds, reptiles and invertebrates, will eat carrion when they can find it, and also consume fruits and pods. They ingest some grass, but are unlikely to derive nutrition from it, instead using it to aid digestion. Some farmers believe they kill small lambs, but this, if it happens at all, must be considered exceptional. Mostly by feeding on rodents and insects, they are doing farmers a favour.
Unlike most mammals in the region, Cape foxes can breed any time of the year. They do prefer to raise their kits in the spring or summer, when there's more food around. The male and female pair up for life. Anywhere from one to six kits are born in the burrow, where they stay until about four months old, though towards the end of this period they will come out to meet their parents returning from feeding, and play with each other around the burrow entrance, a delightful sight. At four months they start accompanying their parents on foraging excursions, and become independent at around five months. At nine months they are sexually mature, at one year they are fully grown, and they can live up to the age of ten years.
Foxes on the Run
Cape foxes are not only predators, but also prey of the many larger carnivores that share their habitat. These include lions, leopards, hyenas, caracals and even honey badgers – the latter being a menace to the fox's kits, able to dig them out of their burrows. The kits and sometimes even adults are also caught by eagles and owls. Cape foxes are adapted to fast running with frequent twists and turns, to escape such predators. Their bushy tails have two likely functions. The first is as a counterweight or as a rudder to the body, enabling it to make rapid changes of direction at speed. The second is as a decoy. Fluffed up, the tail looks as big as the rest of the body. In the dark, a carnivore might lunge for the tail, which is less vulnerable than the head, for example.
Foxes also have many other factors threatening them. The San or Bushmen of the Kalahari, and other peoples, hunt them for their fine fur. Due to being mistaken for livestock killers, they used to be persecuted heavily and with official sanction. This persecution has lessened since it's been generally recognized that they are in fact not lamb killers, but they still often fall prey to measures to eradicate other predators like jackals or leopards. An even more insidious threat is that they can catch diseases like rabies and distemper from dogs in their environment. Many of them are also flattened by cars when they cross roads at night.
Nevertheless, and somewhat amazingly, these clever and resourceful foxes manage so far to maintain their population in spite of all these threats, and are ranked as least concern, conservation-wise. Still it would be a good idea to not become complacent about them. May all future generations still have the opportunity to see these charming little canids in the wild.