Caracal: phantom feline

The caracal is probably the world’s best-looking and most enigmatic cat. It’s a creature of contradictions.

 

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Caracal article spread

The caracal is probably the world’s best-looking and most enigmatic cat. It’s a creature of contradictions.

I still remember my first wild caracal. It was a typical Serengeti evening, with a yellow sun gilding the grass tips, a faint breeze and the fluting of barbets. We had already had a cat day – lions and cheetahs hunting, a lazy leopard, an exquisite serval – so we might easily have missed it.

There was no warning, just a space on the other side of a thorny ditch that was suddenly, silently occupied.

At first it was almost not there: a tawny shape in the tawny grass defined only by a pair of exuberant ear tufts. But then it moved, gliding out onto the path. The animal poured itself effortlessly forwards from its high rear end, strangely confident, as if it took this public stroll every day.
 
We followed it for 100m or so, trying to breathe it in, until it dissolved into the long grass. The exclamation marks of its ears, like the Cheshire Cat’s smile, were the last to fade.
 
Ghosts in the grass
 
In all my years of filming and fieldwork I’ve glimpsed only two other caracals. Truly, they are creatures that cultivate anonymity.
 
My friend Shekhar Kolipaka has studied these and several smaller felines in India for a decade, yet even he has had just eight encounters with caracals, and one of those was virtual – a photo captured by a camera-trap. He describes the species as a “ghost of an animal”.
 
Most photographic and film studies of caracals have had to rely on tame or habituated individuals, and yet, when you do see one, it can act as if it’s always been there and you’re the fool for not spotting it earlier.
 
Cat of contradiction
 
The caracal is a creature of contradictions. At one end of its range, in India, it is thought to be so rare that it is on the verge of extinction; at the other extreme, in South Africa, it is slaughtered indiscriminately as a pest.
 
Though by nature solitary and practically ‘invisible’, it has evolved flashy ears for communication. It is vanishingly shy, yet it apparently makes an excellent pet.
 
And recently, in a few well-protected reserves, it has become just a little bit more conspicuous. In Ranthambhore, a busy tiger reserve in India’s Rajasthan, tourists watched a female for 45 minutes as she led her two kittens on a hunting spree that included grabbing a monitor lizard.
 
Over in the Masai Mara, Kenya, where the pictures on these pages were taken, a female took to grooming her offspring in full view of stunned photographers.
 
Out of Africa
 
The caracal belongs to that group of ‘African’ mammals – including the ratel or honey badger, striped hyena, cheetah and lion – that most people are surprised to learn also live in Asia. A glance at its distribution map is quite revealing.
 
The species occurs virtually everywhere in Africa except for the deepest Sahara Desert and the humid forests of the centre and west. In the Middle East, it is reasonably common in Israel’s arid lands, absent from the Saudi desert and rare in other countries where protection is minimal.
 
In India, it is found mainly in dry forests. In other words, the caracal is nothing if not adaptable (a trait it shares with the leopard, the world’s most versatile big cat).
 
Adaptability is the key
 
If you asked a typical caracal what it likes for dinner, it would say small mammals. But the species also eats insects and lizards, and, in Israel, partridge is top of the menu.
 
A study in South Africa’s Mountain Zebra National Park found that 70 per cent of the local caracals’ diet comprised adult mountain reedbucks. This is astonishing. The caracal, like most cats, varies hugely in size, but reedbucks weigh at least 30kg – half as much again as even the largest male. For an animal to flourish on such a wide range of prey, it must be extraordinarily versatile: light on its feet, yet with very strong muscles.
 
One of the caracal’s key adaptations is its shape. Long rear legs and powerful haunches give the cat a ‘sloping’ profile from back to front, enabling it to bound over rough ground and boulders with great efficiency, wasting little energy.
 
As a result, the caracal thrives in difficult terrain that would be marginal for larger predators. It is actually the biggest carnivore on the block in Mountain Zebra National Park, so it can target prey that would normally be the preserve of leopards or lions.
 
In other places and seasons, however, those formidable back legs mean that the caracal is able to leap high as well as long. During the dry season, when birds flock to water holes, people have seen concealed caracals explode 3m into the air like coiled springs to catch doves or sandgrouse in their paws, sometimes even batting down two at a time.
 
There are records of caracals plucking martial eagles from their perches, and of them killing adult impala and young kudu, as well as springboks, steenboks, duikers and vervet monkeys.
 
Catholic cats
 
Unfortunately, a catholic diet can have its downside. In the ranchlands of South Africa, where most predators have been ruthlessly exterminated, the cautious but ever-adaptable caracal has discovered a taste for lamb.
 
One estimate (provided by a meat-producing organisation) suggests that caracals and black-backed jackals are taking livestock worth $126 million every year. Farmers are duly responding with blanket poisoning.
 
The country’s Endangered Wildlife Trust calculates that 500,000 wild animals of all sorts are now killed there each year, including several thousand caracals. Even ghosts, it seems, can be poisoned.
 
Common sense
 
Time, then, for some common sense. A brilliant new study by Dr Nico Avenant has shown that the slaughter just makes things worse for ranchers, by reducing biodiversity and wiping out the natural prey of caracals and jackals.
 
The research also reveals that dominant, territory-holding caracals favour areas with large numbers of small mammals; they tend to hunt livestock only when rodents are scarce, and expel competing individuals.
 
Moreover, poisoning – or shooting – dominant caracals simply opens up their territories to newcomers that don’t know the best feeding locations. These cats are far more likely to take livestock year-round.
 
So what’s the solution? The researchers recommend improving biodiversity on ranches; protecting dominant caracals (and jackals), which will keep their less discerning, sheep-eating relatives at bay; and planning livestock movements around the peak seasons for small mammals.
 
In the end, I can’t help thinking that it might be a good thing if this wonderful “ghost of an animal” came into the light and let itself be seen, photographed and admired.
 
Wider public interest in the caracal may help to ensure that where the cat is a problem it can be managed intelligently, and where it is disappearing it can be brought lovingly back to life.
 
 
 
 
DID YOU KNOW?
 
The caracal’s pupils contract to form circles, like those of big cats, rather than slits as in small cats. This is a hallmark of species that are not wholly nocturnal.
 
 
FACT FILE: CARACAL  Felis caracal
 
  • Length: Body: 60–90cm; tail: 20–30cm.
  • Weight: Male: 8–20kg; female: 6–16kg.
  • Appearance: A medium-sized cat with a sandy coat and some freckling (often faint) on the belly and the insides of the legs. Huge black pointed ears.
  • Diet: Mammals, from rodents, hares and hyraxes up to the size of antelopes; also takes birds, reptiles and insects.
  • BreedingIn South Africa, mating occurs all year, with a peak in spring and summer; male stays with female for 3–6 days. Female bears litter of 1–6 kittens (average 2) in a burrow or among scrub, and raises them alone. Kittens disperse after 10 months, when their teeth are fully grown.
  • Habitat: Savannah, woodland and dry or rocky country. In ideal terrain, a male’s territory is about 15km²; a female’s is roughly one-third this size. In Israeli semi-desert, a male roams 220km² on average, a female about 60km².
  • Status: Fairly common in East Africa and Israel, but rare elsewhere; thought to be close to extinction in India.
  • Lifespan: Up to 12 years in the wild; typically 15–17 years in captivity.
 
 
For more information about caracals, visit the IUCN Cat Specialist Group here
 
To see Federico's stunning gallery of caracal photographs, click here
 

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