The Sunday Section: Africa's Small Cats - The Caracal

We all know Africa’s big cats – lions, cheetahs and leopards.  But Africa also has small cats, and the caracal is the largest of these.  

The name comes from the Turkish word, ‘karakulak’, which means ‘black ear’.  And that is the caracal’s most distinctive feature – the long black tufts on the back of the ears, similar to that found on the lynx.  Although the caracal is sometimes called the desert lynx, the African lynx, or Persian lynx, it is not a member of the Lynx genus.

There is evidence that the caracal was religiously significant to the Ancient Egyptians as they have been found in wall paintings, and as sculptures guarding tombs.  Some caracal bodies have also been found embalmed. 

Nowadays, the caracal can be found in Africa – most commonly in South Africa and Namibia – in the Middle East, Pakistan and India.  It inhabits woodlands, savannah, semi-deserts, and scrub forests, favouring arid habitats with lower rainfall.  It prefers open country with sufficient cover from which to ambush prey.

The caracal’s build is slender yet muscular, with long legs and a short tail.  Its hind legs are noticeably longer than its front.  The jaw is short but powerful.  Both sexes look the same, but, as with all animals, the males are heavier; an adult male can weigh between 29 to 40lb, while the female weighs about 24lb.  Its fur varies from tawny-brown to brick red, with white fur on the abdomen, chin and throat.  Young caracals have reddish spots on the underside, but once they reach adulthood, the only markings they sport are black spots above the eyes, and small white patches around the eyes and nose.  A narrow black line runs from the corner of the eye to the nose.  Unlike the pupils of other small cats that shrink to form slits, the pupils of a caracal’s eyes contract into circles.

Caracals produce the usual cat sounds, including purring, hissing, growling, snarling and calling.  Interestingly, they also make a barking sound, possibly as a warning.

Dwelling alone or, less commonly, in pairs, caracals are fiercely territorial.  The home range of the female is smaller, depending on the availability of prey, and she will actively defend it against other females.  Males, on the other hand, roam over larger areas with considerable overlap.  In keeping with cat behaviour, caracals scent mark their territory.

Caracals reach sexual maturity between 12 and 16 months, and breed throughout the year.  The gestation period is about 2½ months, and the females normally have one litter per year, with each litter producing between 1 to 4 kittens, 2 being the average.  The kittens are weaned at about 10 weeks, and remain with the mother for up to a year.

In the wild, the caracal’s life expectancy is 12 years, which lengthens in captivity to 17 years.  Remarkably, the caracal can survive long periods without drinking, its water demand being satisfied with the body fluids of its prey.

Like cheetahs, captive caracals were used as hunting tools, trained to hunt small game and birds for Indian royalty.  Primarily nocturnal, the speed and agility of these cats make them exceptional hunters.  They hunt by stalking their prey, approaching within about 16ft before breaking into a sprint and leaping.  Their powerful hind legs allow them to leap almost 10ft into the air, and they are believed to be able to knock down up to 12 birds at one time.  Their ears are controlled by about 20 muscles, which move the ears independently, helping them better determine their prey’s position.  By comparison, human ears have 6 muscles.  If there is no cover for it to conceal itself, the caracal may choose to flatten itself against the ground and remain motionless, the colour of its coat serving as excellent camouflage.

Although the caracal’s diet mainly consists of birds and small mammals, including rodents, hares and hyraxes, it is not averse to preying on the young of larger mammals, such as impala and antelope.  Given the opportunity, this small cat will not hesitate to take down larger prey, like adult springbok or juvenile kudu.  Smaller prey are dispatched with a bite to the nape of the neck, while larger animals are killed by a suffocating throat bite, and being raked by the caracal’s claws.  If the caracal does not consume the entire carcass of a larger prey in a single meal, it will conceal it and return to it later.

Sometimes, it will eat lizards, snakes and insects, and has been known to scavenge.  The caracal also attacks livestock, which has earned it the reputation of a problem animal.  Being abundant in number in Namibia and South Africa, caracals are killed without restriction by local landowners who are permitted to do so.  Although their primary threat is humans, they are also killed by leopards.  In conservation terms, the caracal seems to be doing well even where hunting it is permitted.

This clip from the Smithsonian Channel proves that a caracal on the hunt is poetry in motion: