Caracal, Caracal caracal
The most distinctive feature of the caracal is its long black ear tufts, hence another common name, desert lynx. The back of the ear is also black. Considered the largest of the “small” cats in Africa, male caracals in South Africa weigh as much as 40 pounds (18 kg); females are slightly smaller and weigh less than 35 pounds (16 kg). In Africa, caracals are tawny brown to brick-red in color; melanistic individuals have also been recorded. In Asia, populations in Israel are paler in color, with five to ten percent of the population being dark gray in color. They are also smaller than African populations, with male caracals in Israel being only 20 pounds (9.8 kg); females are noticeably smaller and average only 12 pounds (6.2 kg). Despite the pronounced ear tuft, caracals are not closely related to the lynx, Lynx sp.
In sub-Saharan Africa, caracals prefer drier savanna and woodland regions, with a strong preference for scrubby, arid habitats. In southern Africa, they are often associated with rocky terrain because of an abundance of prey (hyraxes and red rock rabbits). They are not found in tropical rainforests. In North Africa, they are common in the humid forest zone of the northern coastal regions as well as the Saharan mountain ranges.
Caracals are found throughout most of Africa except Central Africa and coastal portions of West Africa, and overall, their populations are satisfactory. Caracals are most abundant in Namibia and South Africa, possibly because of local extirpation of black-backed jackals by farmers. In Ethiopia they range up to 8, 200 feet (2,500 m), and as high as 10,827 feet (3,300 m) in the Bale and Simien Mountains. Elsewhere in Africa and Asia, caracals are widely distributed, absent only from true desert. Caracals are rare in India. In Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan, cold winters limit northern expansion.
Caracals feed primarily on small antelopes and gazelles, hares and small rodents. Depending on availability and habitat, hyraxes, livestock, reptiles and carrion may also play an important role in their diet. In South Africa and Namibia, caracals are considered to be a significant predator of sheep. Because of their exceptional leaping ability, birds play an important role in their diet in some parts of their range. Caracals leap high into the air and knock birds down with their front paws.
Like most other small cats, caracals are solitary predators, coming together only to breed. During other parts of the year, caracals maintain exclusive territories that preclude entry by members of the same sex. In sub-Saharan Africa, caracals appear to breed year round, giving birth to two (range 1 to 4) young after a gestation of 78 to 81 days. Young are sexually mature at 12 to 15 months (males) and 14 to 16 months (females). Populations in northern Africa and Asia appear to breed seasonally, with young being found primarily in April and May. They are thought to breed once a year.
Though adept at climbing trees, caracals hunt primarily on the ground and at night. It gets as close to prey as possible before launching an attack. The caracal is able to leap nearly 10 feet into the air from a standing start to bat down birds. It is also an excellent sprinter, faster than other similar-sized cats.
Threats to Survival:
In South Africa and Namibia, caracals are often killed for suspected predation on small livestock. Analysis of stomach contents suggest that small livestock do make up a significant portion of the caracal’s diet, with estimates ranging from 17% to 55% in different areas. As a result, several thousand caracals are killed annually in parts of southern Africa. Control efforts thus far appear to have little effort on caracal populations and they typically re-colonize farming areas following local extirpation. In West and Central Africa, hunting caracals for their skins and meat is reported to be a threat because they are more sparsely distributed. In Asia, caracals pose less of a problem to farmers, taking livestock only in winter when natural prey is scarce. In the absence of heavy persecution, caracals adapt well to living in settled areas of this region.
Caracals are listed as Least Concern on the 2013 IUCN Red List. CITES lists all populations in Asia (two subspecies) on Appendix I. All other populations are listed on Appendix II. None are listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
An international studbook and Species Survival Plan is supported at Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park. A species easily maintained by zoos and private individuals, the goal of the AZA Felid TAG has set a captive population size of 65 individuals. Although Asian caracals are rarer in the wild, few Asian caracals are present in North America.
Caracal SSP Coordinator & Studbook Keeper
Kristen Clark, Smithsonian’s National Zoo
Small African Cat SSPs Education Advisors:
Kelly Miller, Palm Beach Zoo
Alma Ruffin, Riverbanks Zoo and Garden
Caracals have not been well studied except for those populations in South Africa and Israel. In most countries, little protection is provided and in South Africa and Namibia, they continue to be heavily persecuted. Because of their wide range and relative abundance, little focus has been afforded this species. Conservation CATalyst, an organization based in Namibia, is involved with protecting caracals. They radio-collar wild caracals, take their measurements, and re-release while working with local farmers to mitigate human-caracal conflict. The organization also promotes the use of humane leg traps and collects donations for these traps for eventual disbursement to local farmers. They are hoping for a complete phase-out of steel leg traps, which not only dismember caracals, but capture other wild fauna such as leopards, servals, aardwolves, hoofstock, and raptors.