THE AFRICAN
GOLDEN CAT

and the massive loss of its natural
habitat inside Rhino Ark’s Aberdare Fence

The Aberdares, Kenya /FOTOLIA

The Aberdares, Kenya /FOTOLIA

A handful of naturalists and fly fishermen in Kenya, over the course of the last century, reported seeing what they thought might be the “African golden cat”. A glimpse, a blur … and the cat would bound into the undergrowth and disappear before anyone could reach for their binoculars or their camera. Rupert Watson and Rob O’Meara, amongst others, reported seeing the cat on the southern end of the Aberdares in the late 1970s. But many experts simply thought the common caracal was being mistaken for the rare and elusive African golden cat. A mature cat weighs between 6-14kg. 



THE SEARCH

According to a recent paper published in the journal of East African Natural History by Thomas Butynski, Helen Douglas-Dufresne and Yvonne de Jong, the only currently verifiable record of the African golden cat in Kenya is a skin at the National Museums of Kenya. It was collected in 1946 by A Toschi from Ogiek tribesmen in the Mau Forest. Otherwise, no complete specimens have been recorded and no photographs have existed until just recently.

Laila Bahaa-el-din and David Mills, sponsored by Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organisation, have studied the African golden cat in Uganda and Gabon. Today, they are probably the world’s leading authorities on the cat. But neither has seen the cat in Kenya. Some years ago, Gordon Boy spent some time researching the African golden cat in Kenya without ever seeing it. His story was later documented in the Swara magazine dated April-June 2013.

In 2016, the Bamboo Trading Company (BTC) used a camera trap and photographed, at a distance, what it believed to be the African golden cat. Most naturalists were again sceptical.

In early 2019, Stratton Hatfield (studying Martial Eagle ecology) placed a few camera traps in Kieni forest. Stratton managed to see a number of large birds of prey, including the crowned eagle and the long-crested eagle, and to photograph pouched rats, genets, honey badgers, mating porcupines, black-fronted duiker, plenty of bushbuck and two African golden cats. 

Dik-dik, native to the Aberdares, Kenya /FOTOLIA

Dik-dik, native to the Aberdares, Kenya /FOTOLIA

Then on Saturday May 18, a young female African golden cat, in golden morph, was hit and killed on the main tarmac road not far from Kieni forest station on the southern end of the Aberdares.

A worker from the Bamboo Trading Company, Joseph Mwaura, found the dead animal, photographed it, and took the corpse to the Department of Mammalogy at the National Museums of Kenya. The African golden cat has since been refrigerated. In due course, it will have DNA samples taken and a taxidermist will prepare it for viewing. This cat is incredibly rare.

FOREST ENCROACHMENT

Although Kieni forest is deep inside the Rhino Ark fence, it is under huge pressure from the communities surrounding it. On one side, the forest is surrounded by tea farms, where the communities need firewood. On the other side, it is being burnt and encroached on by thousands of people, who want to grow vegetables and graze their livestock. Large numbers of people move in and out of the Rhino Ark fence daily. 

The Rhino Ark fence was intended to stop human-wildlife conflict and to ensure there is indigenous vegetation on the Aberdares to provide for water catchment. But when thousands of people develop farms and erect houses inside the fence, how can human-wildlife conflict possibly be avoided? How can the water catchment areas possibly provide clean water to streams and rivers?

Dead African Golden Cat found and photographed by Joseph Mwaura of the Bamboo Trading Company

Dead African Golden Cat found and photographed by Joseph Mwaura of the Bamboo Trading Company

Dead African Golden Cat found and photographed by Joseph Mwaura of the Bamboo Trading Company

Dead African Golden Cat found and photographed by Joseph Mwaura of the Bamboo Trading Company

The African golden cat’s habitat is disappearing. When the farmers are waiting for their fields of potatoes to mature, they spend much of their time in the forest, gathering bush meat, collecting honey and felling indigenous trees. In many areas, the electric fence is turned off for long periods of time to accommodate livestock and local communities.



Forestry has always been controversial in Kenya. With a growing population, good agricultural soils and good rainfall are much sought after. 

Bamboo Trading Company has demonstrated that the nation’s indigenous bamboo, Arundinaria alpina, can be managed sustainably. Harvesting bamboo only takes three or four days in a given year. This ensures a small human footprint in the forest. No agrochemicals or fertilisers are required.

The former CEO of Rhino Ark, Colin Church, visited Kieni, Kamae and Kimakia forest stations, and was shocked by the land invasions. In early 2018, he wrote a letter to Rhino Ark’s board with photographs attached. 


Farmland and rubbish within the Rhino Park fence /COURTESY

Farmland and rubbish within the Rhino Park fence /COURTESY

The preservation of Kenya’s forests provides for communities far from the forest edge, often in Nairobi, Naivasha or Thika. Many Community Forestry Associations lack capability and leadership or have been hijacked by political ambition and personal economic interest. If Kenya’s water catchments are to be preserved, the legions of people who have now erected houses inside the Aberdare and Mau forests, often under the PELIS system, must be relocated to official forest stations.

As the nation’s population grows, it needs sustainable wood biomass. Kenya’s indigenous bamboo produces more biomass per hectare per year than any other plant in the country. 

In some areas, it produces over 90 tonnes of biomass per hectare at 25 per cent moisture for harvest each year. This equates to double the productivity of the fastest-growing eucalyptus in Kericho.

Indigenous bamboo, Arundinaria alpina, has a proven calorific value. It can be used in boilers and furnaces throughout the country. It can also be used to produce fence posts and transmission poles. It can be used to produce a variety of value-added products for housing and furniture. It is the most useful timber-related product in the world. But it is being cleared and replaced with subsistence agriculture. The Mara river has dried up for two years in a row because there is no longer sufficient bamboo forest on the Mau water catchment.

Bamboo forest /FOTOLIA

Bamboo forest /FOTOLIA

Rhino Ark has often talked of growing indigenous forest and of promoting good forest management. It is now time to act, not by investing in fences but by investing in indigenous forestry and seriously protecting the area inside the fence. Only then will the African golden cat and its friends stand some chance of survival. 

The production of sustainable wood fuel is this country’s most pressing environmental issue. Indigenous bamboo is more valuable than oil and gas because it provides cheap energy, wildlife habitat, water catchment — and rural employment in five areas of the country.