Although the term "carnivore" is used to describe an animal that eats meat, it also refers specifically to the members of the order Carnivora. While most members of this group eat meat, some have mixed diet and some are almost completely herbivorous (Bears species). The order Carnivora has 12 families comprising about 270 species. Many carnivores are endangered as a result of habitat loss, degradation, poaching and hunting. Wild dogs are one of the most endangered carnivores in the world, their major threats include accidental and targeted killings by humans, viral diseases such as rabies and distemper, habitat loss and competition with larger predators like lions. Some carnivores are also hunted for their beautiful coats (Margay) or for medicinal purposes (Civets). A unique trait of Carnivora is the presence of four carnassial teeth. These differ between species but are usually the fourth upper pre-molar and the third lower molar – a pair of opposing teeth used for cutting and which sharpen the teeth as they rub against each other.

The Zoo has representatives of 7 families:

Dogs and their relatives

Johannesburg Zoo successfully breed endangered Wild dogs also known as “painted wolves or dogs”. Wild dogs have unmistakably long legs, rounded ears and a spotted coat. The coat pattern is unique to each dog, making individuals easily recognisable. They are diurnal pack hunters. They have a separate female and male hierarchy in which only the dominant animals breed. They have a highly-developed social structure in which the pups and sick animals are fed by the pack regurgitating food on their return from hunting.

The smallest fox, the Fennec Fox from northern Africa, is also kept at Johannesburg Zoo. These tiny foxes are mostly nocturnal and can be viewed on the Nocturnal Tours. They are adapted for very hot climates, with large ears and heavily furred paws. Several well-known foxes belong to the genus Vulpes, but the only indigenous fox species in the Zoo, The Bat-eared Fox, belongs to the genus Otocyon because of its unusual dentition (tooth structure). They are insectivorous, but also feed on mice, reptiles and small birds. Litters of up to six young are born in burrows in the ground. It occurs in open areas and is nocturnal.


These are the most specialised of the carnivores and are unusual in that all species appear remarkably similar. Most cats are solitary. They have fur that provides camouflage, a useful tool when hunting or protecting their young.  

Cats are threatened – the entire family is listed by the Convention on International Trade of Endangered species (CITES) and some are critically endangered. The main threats are hunting either for fur or traditional medicine. Habitat destruction is also a threat as cats usually need large territories for their food supply.

Cats are divided into two groups, the big cats and the small cats. Small cats cannot roar like big cats, they can purr and have a strip of leathery skin across the top of their noses, directly above the wet tip. Cats have retractable claws, with large and sharp canine teeth. 

Johannesburg Zoo has several cat species. Most of the smaller species are indigenous, including African Wild cat, Serval, Black footed cat and Caracal. The only exotic small cat on display is the beautiful Margay from South America.

Small Cats

The Caracal is known as the ‘Rooikat’ (red cat) because of its colour. It has characteristic dark or black-backed ears with tassels of hair on the tips. This cat used to be hunted mercilessly as it sometimes attacks domestic stock. These days, extensive education programmes are in place to educate farming communities. 

The African Wild Cat is often mistaken for a domestic cat and they tend to breed with domestic cats – for this reason they are classified as endangered. They also ‘meow’ like their domestic cousins. 

The Puma comes from South America. It is much the same size as a Cheetah, weighing 39 – 65Kg, but more heavily-built. It is the largest of the small cats, grouped with them because of its characteristics. They thrive in varied habitats - coniferous, temperate and tropical forests, steppe, grasslands, desert and mountains.

Big Cats

The larger cat species at Johannesburg Zoo includes lions mainly housed at AngloGold Ashanti enclosure. Lions have long been considered the King of jungle because of their strength and predatory behaviour. Johannesburg Zoo was the first Zoo in the world to breed white lions and ensures that this unique strain remains genetically diverse. White lions carry a recessive gene and are not albinos. Albinos lack the gene for colouration: their skin and fur are normally white and their eyes red – a good example is the albino pet rabbit.  White lions have normal skin colour, white hair and eyes ranging in colour from green to blue to pale yellow. 

Siberian/Amur Tigers are the largest cat species in the world, on view in their large enclosure up near the South African Museum of Military History. Johannesburg Zoo once housed one of the largest male Siberian/ Amur tiger “Twist” weighed 320kg. There are a number of different tiger species such as the Sumatran tigers, Bengal tigers, South China tiger, Malayan tigers, Indochinese tigers and Siberian/Amur tigers. All tigers are endangered, South China tigers are the most critically endangered tiger species.

Leopards are known as the best stalkers in the cat family and are also the most widespread of all cats due to their adaptable hunting and feeding behaviour. They are arguably one of the most beautiful member of the genus panthera.   They are characterised by rosette spots which differ in colour and patterns depending on their location.   

Cheetahs are the fastest animals on land and can reach speeds of almost 100km/h. This cat is easily distinguished from the other big cats because of its adaptations for speed, namely its streamlined form - slim body, long muscular legs, long tail for balance and small rounded head. They also have visibly black marks also known as tear marks that starts from the corner of both eyes to their moth. This is also the only big cat that cannot retract its claws. Cheetah populations are considered stable in captivity, but vulnerable in the wild.


Unlike most other carnivores, bears rely heavily on vegetation for food. The Zoo has a pair of Spectacled Bears indigenous to South America.  Spectacled bears are one of the largest carnivores in their habitat and are the most arboreal of all the bears.   They are part of a European breeding programme for Endangered Species.

Superfamily Musteloidae

The Musteloidea consists of families Ailuridae (red pandas), Mustelidae (weasels, otter ,martens, and badgers), Procyonidae (racoons, coatis, kinkajous, olingos, olinguitos, ringtails and cacomistles), and Mephitidae (skunks and stink badgers). They are united by shared characters of the skull and teeth.  Johannesburg Zoo houses Red pandas, Ring-tailed coatis, African clawless otter and Honey badger as representatives of Musteloidea superfamily family.  

Red Pandas are endangered animals from South East Asia. They are almost completely herbivorous, feeding mostly on bamboo plants, roots, fruits and insects and inhabit very dense forests at very high altitudes.

The Ring-tailed coatis are housed in the Amazon exhibit and have distinctive long snouts. They move in very noisy groups through the vegetation looking for anything edible, including fungi, insects, seeds, fruit and mice. They are still listed as locally common and are sometimes kept as pets.

The Honey badger (or Ratel in Afrikaans), is a very tenacious animal, black and white in colour and weighs approximately 12 kg. They tend to be nocturnal in summer and diurnal in winter. Honey is a small part of their diet, as their name indicates. Bee farmers view honey badgers as a threat to their beehives.  An inventive way was found to protect beehives from honey badgers by raising the hives on poles, which the badgers find difficult to climb. The Johannesburg Zoo adopted the honey badger as its logo (symbol) because of the badger’s tenacity and resilience.

African clawless otter also known as Cape clawless otter, is the second largest freshwater species of otter. They are characterized by partly webbed and clawless feet from which their name is derived. They live in near permanent water bodies. They are nocturnal, lie quietly in bushy areas during the day.

African Civets and Small spotted genets (Family: Viverridae)

Members of this family have a slender body and a long tail. They are related to cats and hyenas but are more primitive, with a longer snout and extra teeth. They all have the same kind of teeth, adapted for slicing, breaking or crushing food. These species also have glands in the anal regions and African civet produces strong odour oil used in perfumes.  All genets are indigenous to Africa, were introduced to Southwestern Europe and the Balearic Island. Small spotted genets are grey in colour with dark spots and stripes. They have long slender body and short legs.

Most of the species housed by the zoo are not endangered and are indigenous to South Africa. These include the charismatic Suricates (usually known as Meerkats, their Afrikaans name), the secretive nocturnal Genets and the heavily built Civets. Civets are the largest of this group of animals.  Suricates are diurnal and live in warrens housing up to 30 individuals. They feed on insects, larvae, scorpions and lizards. They have a sentry, which keeps an eye out for predators and, if a predator is detected, the sentry sounds a warning to the rest of the group to take cover.  

Striped hyena (Family:Hyaenidae)

Although members of this family resemble dogs, they are in fact more closely related to cats and Civets. They all feature a distinctive back line that slopes downwards from the shoulders to the tail. These species of Hyena is native to North and East Africa, the Middle East, the Caucasus , central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. They are monogamous, with both male and female assist one another in raising their cubs. Striped hyenas are predominantly scavengers but a significant part of their diet consists of insects, small vertebrates, eggs, fruit and vegetables. They are nocturnal and can been seen active on nocturnal tours.