Spotted at night: the slinky allure of the genet


Sometimes, watching African wildlife leaves you conflicted. My first sighting of a freckled nightjar is a case in point. As a birder, the fact that this elusive nocturnal species was at that very moment struggling for its life should have left me dismayed. But the fact that it was clutched firmly in the jaws of my first ever genet was, simultaneously, a cause for celebration. A bitter-sweet moment, perhaps, but a double-lifer nonetheless.

That was nearly 30 years ago, at Sinematella Camp in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park. Since then, I’ve been lucky enough to observe genets in many parts of Africa. There’s something about that fluid, spotted form that never fails to thrill – enhanced, perhaps, by that frisson that comes with spotting any hunter that comes to life when darkness falls.

So what exactly are genets? Well, first up, they aren’t felines – despite the widespread use of the term ‘genet cat’. Neither are they weasels, otters, martens or mongooses. In fact, genets are viverrids. That is to say, they are classified alongside civets in the family Viverridae, an entirely separate group that is closest in its general form to the primitive early ancestors of all mammalian carnivores.

Whatever their evolutionary affiliations, genets are unmistakable, with their short limbs, long tails, and slinky agility both on the ground and in the treetops. Taxonomists today recognise up to 17 species, many of them very similar. Thankfully, for ID purposes, many also have a very limited distribution. On the average safari you are most likely to come across either the common genet (Genetta genetta) or the rusty-spotted genet (Genetta maculata). The two differ slightly in markings and habitat: my nightjar-munching individual was the latter, by virtue of its black- rather than white-tipped tail.

To find yourself a genet, try a night drive. In areas where these carnivores are abundant, you can often pick up their eye-shine in a spotlight. And don’t forget your binoculars: you need only follow the beam and you’ll have an excellent view of the lithe, spotted creature crouching behind those glowing orbs.

An even better view is possible in safari lodges where genets are habituated visitors, often hanging around a kitchen or campfire for scraps. Their unfazed behaviour at such close quarters is a reminder that these animals were once kept as house pets in North Africa, prized for their mousing talents. Indeed, it explains why the common genet now also occurs in Spain and southern France, introduced hundreds of years ago by the Moors.

As for my moral dilemma, it took a sighting in Zambia’s Luangwa Valley many years later to even things up: another rusty-spotted genet spotted up a tree, but this time dangling lifeless from the talons of a huge Verreaux’s eagle owl. With the score now standing at one-all, I await developments.

To get the best out of your wildlife or safari experience, Travel Africa encourages the use of a good quality binocular. To further enhance the experience and capture great memories, take an iPhone adapter to connect your iPhone to your binocular.

This column is sponsored by Swarovski Optik, the premier range of optics for wildlife in glorious close-up. To see their full range visit

Mike Unwin is an award-winning travel writer and author who has an insatiable fascination with wildlife and animal behaviour. 

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