One of Africa’s cutest yet least understood animals are the African civets. That unfamiliarity is likely because these solitary, nocturnal creatures are difficult to spot. They spend most of the day sleeping in dense vegetation, venturing at night to snack on whatever prey they can find.
Despite their elusiveness, they are spread throughout most of central Africa. Their habitat ranges throughout the entire middle of the continent to the sub-Saharan region and all the way to the northern tip of South Africa.
Catching a glimpse of one of these common yet crafty critters on an African safari tour is difficult, but with a keen eye and some patience, you may be able to get a gander at one on its nighttime prowl.
African Civet Appearance and Behavior
At a glance, the African civet looks like a cross between a huge tortoiseshell cat and a raccoon. They have long, lithe bodies and a cat-like tail. Their front quarters look decidedly less like a cat as a result of the slouching shoulders and tiny dog-like head. Dark circles cover the eyes, and small but slightly pointed ears afford them excellent hearing.
Black markings may appear to make the civet stand out, but as they hunt through the underbrush at night, these quiet creatures are incredibly hard to spot. They are also shy, fleeing most potential confrontations quickly as a defense mechanism. Non-retractable claws give it amazing climbing abilities, and civets will spend much of their life foraging or sleeping in trees. Civets have 40 sharp teeth they use to quickly catch and bite into prey. They live around 15 years in the wild but can live over 20 years in captivity.
An Acquired Taste?
Because civets are quite hard to locate in the wild, biologists actually know little about their behavior compared to most other animals. What is known is that while civets are not usually physically aggressive, they are fiercely territorial. They have large scent glands that they use to spray and mark their territory.
This pungent musk actually caused the civet to be highly sought after by perfumers . They would hunt civets and capture them to regularly milk them for their scent glands. The scent was used as a fixative and base ingredient for many fine perfumes, but synthetic versions that can imitate the properties of civet musk have replaced the practice of milking civets.
When milked, a male civet only produces around three to four grams of pure musk a week, causing the substance to command extremely high prices on the global market — up to $500 for a kilogram.
Where to See Civets on an African Safari Tour
Civets have a wide habitat range and are most often found in non-arid locations near permanent bodies of water. You can most easily find them along river systems and lakes.
See if you can spot a civet during your African safari when you book one of our multi-country African vacation packages today.
Jill Liphart for Roho Ya Chui, Travel Africa
image by Kruger Park