• Before: Aww, it looks so cute!
  • After: You can add “usually innocent” to that as well.

If you look like a jackal and hang around livestock, a farmer might hail you. With bullets. Repeatedly.

Branded a “problem animal” in southern Africa for poaching poultry and lambs, the Cape fox took so much lead in the 1970s and 80s it lost about 16% of its population each year. Doesn’t sound much? In human terms, that’s 1.2 billion people, or almost all of China. Every single year!

In fact the Cape fox was so hated (or loved?) by dogs, traps and poison, we only recently discovered its natural predator.

Silver and black don’t mix

Also known as the silver-backed fox or silver jackal, the Cape fox has a non-human nemesis in the form of the larger black-backed jackal, but not because it spices up its menu. Most attacks are territorial spats, which is odd since their respective diets – small mammals and insects for the Cape fox, hoofed animals and hares for the jackal – only overlap by about 40%. It usually takes an overlap of 70-80% to trigger any competitive carnage, and as an extra kick in the teeth, the Cape fox’s jackal-like wardrobe might be why farmers were pointing the finger at it.

To be fair, the bafflingly bright yellow would draw anyone’s attention.

A sweet delicious truth

In three separate studies, Cape fox stomachs held no poultry surprises and were full of rodents, insects, grass and bluebush berries, and while sheep parts were common, they were in extremely low amounts. This suggests the Cape fox probably sneaked a bite from a nearby jackal kill. There’s apparently scant evidence of lamb grabbing too, and being both dinky and a lone hunter doesn’t exactly place you on a sheep’s “most wanted” list.

Puppy love

Like the aardwolf, the Cape fox hunts and dines out alone, even in a mated pair.

Going by Kamler et al.’s study, it’s a pretty aloof mate at first glance, only sharing resting spots 28% of the time. But this surges to 81% once it has pups, and it may couple up for longer than some other canids: one pair remained together for 18 months, and were already shacked up when the researchers arrived.

Once the 2-4 pups are about 9 months old, the males scamper off to pastures new, and the females stay nearby to form their own territory or help Mum with the next lot. Dad hangs around to feed them in the crucial early weeks, which makes sense as it helps boost their survival chances. This, a high pup-popping rate and farmers shooting up more jackals are some of the reasons the Cape fox didn’t perform the worst kind of vanishing act.

Frontier fox

In a first for this list, this critter has actually expanded its range of late, roaming as far as the Atlantic and Indian Ocean coastlines, and unlike the lionfish, it can help the locals. By putting away up to 4,000 rodents a year, each, it’s good for farmland and vineyards, and in Karoo shrubland, where the soil is less than cooperative, its den-digging allows water and other debris to collect and boost seed growth.

The only thing “cloak and dagger” about this little fox was its natural enemy, and its secret propensity to help rather than hinder farmland. Good job it outfoxed extinction, then!

TLDR

Latin: Vulpes chama

What? Small southern African fox with large ears. It’s the only “true” or Vulpes fox in Africa.

Where? Mainly arid, open grassland areas in southern Africa, but partial to scrub and farmland as well.

How big? 35cm / 1ft at the shoulder, 94cm / 3ft long.

Endangered? Nope, currently Least Concern. In fact its range has actually expanded in recent years!

Probable motto: I’m so cute everyone wants a piece of me, apparently.

They look cute. Do they need my help at all?

Amazingly, no. It has a wide and recently increased range, now reaching as far as the Atlantic and Indian Ocean coasts, and habitat loss isn’t really an issue for it, as scrubland also suits it down to the ground. It’s still not massively welcomed by farmers and can be caught in the pest-poison crossfire, but it’s generally protected and able to get on with its foxy business for now.

Just to prove I’m not fibbing:

Bothma, J. Du P.1966. “Food of the Silver Fox Vulpes Chama“. Zoologica Africana, 2(2):205-209.

Cape fox“. No date. Siyabona Africa.

Janfkamler. 2008. “Cape Fox Research (Part 1)“. YouTube.

Janfkamler. 2008. “Cape Fox Research (Part 2)“. YouTube.

Kamler, Jan F., and Macdonald, David W. 2014. “Social organization, survival, and dispersal of cape foxes (Vulpes chama) in South Africa“. Mammalian Biology 79(1):64-70.

Kamler, Jan et al. 2016. “A conservation assessment of Vulpes chama“. The Red List of Mammals of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland.

Klare, Unn et al. 2014. “Seasonal diet and numbers of prey consumed by Cape foxes Vulpes chama in South Africa“. Wildlife Biology 20(3):190-195.

Population, total“. 2019. World Bank.

Population 2017“. 2019. World Bank.

Vulpes chama“. No date. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Featured image credit: “Good morning, Mr. Cape Fox!” by Pim GMX.