A Voice For The Wild Cats of the World
Featured Feline: Caracal
October 13, 2010Posted by on
When the Autumn issue of BBC Wildlife magazine landed in our mailbox, we were delighted to see a beautiful Caracal (Caracal caracal) gracing the cover. It’s not often the small wild cats are featured on the front of the world’s leading wildlife magazine, as well as in an article following a wild Caracal and her cub in Kenya.
Caracals are among the few non-endangered wild cat species, although their status does vary throughout their range. While thought to be close to extinction in India, they are considered fairly common in east Africa and Israel.
These cats occupy a wide variety of habitats from semi-desert to open savannah, scrubland to moist woodland and evergreen forest. They seem to favour drier woodland savannah regions with lower rainfall, and are absent from the equatorial rainforest.
Home ranges are always large in arid areas, and Caracal ranges average 316.4 km² in Namibia. A radio-tracked male in Saudi Arabia ranged over 270 km² to 1,116 km² in different seasons. In better watered areas of South Africa, home ranges are smaller, as the cats don’t have to travel so far to find food. Female ranges are considerably smaller than those of the males, and like other wild cat species, the males home range includes that of several females.
Caracal means ‘black ears’ in Turkish. Large, tapering ears with five cm (2”) erect tufts of black hair, used for communication, are probably the most unique feature of this cat. The position and movement of the ears provides information about their feelings, especially for mothers with cubs. In big, arid territories, large ears also help locate the squeaks of small rodents and other prey species.
Another unusual feature of the Caracal is their pupils. which contract to form circles like those of the big cats. This is a characteristic of animals that are not wholly nocturnal The pupils of the generally nocturnal small wild cat species contract into slits.
The Caracal is a remarkable jumper, and can jump several feet into the air to knock flushed birds down with its paws. Ten to a dozen pigeons at one time can be taken this way, and the Caracal was once tamed and trained for bird hunting in India and Iran. The cat was put in arena containing a flock of pigeons, and wagers were made to see how many it would take down. This is the origination of the expression ‘to put a cat amongst the pigeons’.
This species is widespread and relatively common in eastern and southern Africa. In South Africa and Namibia. they are expanding their range into new areas. However, in the forests of central and west Africa densities are apparently lower, possibly due to the presence of a larger number of other carnivores.
Caracals are known to prey on domestic stock, and are shot, trapped and poisoned by farmers. During the years 1931-1952 an average of 2,219 Caracals per year were killed in control operations in South Africa. Namibian farmers responding to a government questionnaire reported killing up to 2,800 Caracals in 1981.
The rate of predation on domestic livestock corelates to the availability of wild prey, and the husbandry techniques of livestock owners. If natural prey is abundant, and fences and other control measures protect domestic animals, predation on livestock is minimal. Unfortunately, the situation is often the reverse, and like all carnivores, Caracals will hunt what ever is easiest to catch.
Populations in Asian range states are included on CITES Appendix I; populations in African range states are included on Appendix II. In Namibia and South Africa, the Caracal is classified as a Problem Animal, which permits landowners to kill the species without restriction. Nonetheless, Caracal remain widespread, and are present in many large, and well-managed protected areas across their vast range.