The Caracal, the largest of the African small wild cats, is an extremely agile carnivore that inhabits the drier parts of the African continent and parts of Asia. Like most other members of the Felidae group, it generally leads a solitary life outside the breeding season. Superficially, it looks a little like the Lynx, but it lacks the Lynx’s markings and has longer, more pointed ears. Although classified in the same genus, the two are not closely related.
The Caracal has distinctive tufts of long black hair on the ends of its ears, which evolved for communication purposes. This cat gets its name from a Turkish word, which fittingly means ‘black-ear’.
The Caracal’s most distinctive feature is its elongated ears, which are black on the back and have long tufts of black hair projecting from them.
The whole of the Caracal’s head is pointed and it has a rather sinister appearance. Certainly it lacks the more rounded, appealing face of the domestic cat, and of some of the other wild cats such as the Serval, European Wildcat and even the Tiger and lioness.
- NAME: Felis caracal (also sometimes classified as Caracal caracal and Lynx caracal)
- RANGE: Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia, including northern India.
- HABITAT: Savannahs, hills and deserts; in South Africa, also in montane forest.
- APPEARANCE: Slender cat with tawny-brown to brick-red coat, white belly, short tail, pointed ears with black ear tufts. Average height 40-45cm (16-18in); length 82-120cm (53-48in) including 23-31cm (9-12in) tail. Average weight of male 13kg (29lb), sometimes up to 1 8kg (40lb) ; females 10kg (22lb), sometimes up to 16kg (35lb).
- FOOD: Rodents, birds, hares and small antelopes such as the gazelle.
- BREEDING: Probably year round, with one litter annually; gestation 78-81 days, litters of 1-4 kittens. Males reach sexual maturity at 12-15 months of age; females at 14-16 months.
Although the Caracal is basically a nocturnal animal, it is sometimes seen during the day, particularly in protected areas such as national parks. Nevertheless, most of its hunting is done at night.
The Caracal’s preferred prey ranges from small rodents, hares, birds and hyraxes (rodent-like mammals) to small antelope. However, there have been reports of caracals also catching antelope such as gazelles and adult springbok, as well as some reptiles. The type of prey constituting most of their food varies from area to area. For example, in South Africa antelope form a large part of the diet, while in more northern parts of Africa, hyraxes seem to be the favourite prey.
In parts of their range, the Caracal itself is exploited by humans for its skin, and for `bushmeat’. It is also sometimes killed because it is thought to pose a threat to small livestock. As as result of this exploitation, the Caracal is being protected in wildlife refuges and national parks.
- In Asia – where it is now rare – the Caracal was traditionally caught and trained as a hunting animal, in order to provide its trainers with food.
- Generally, spotted wild cats live in forests, while cats with less distinctive patterns live in tall grass or open territory.
- The Caracal is exceptionally skilled at hunting birds. It is able to leap high into the air and bring the bird to earth with a swipe of its front paw.
- Like the Leopard, it is not unknown for a Caracal to cache the remains of a carcass in a tree.