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The caracal

19 October 2015


The caracal is a slender cat of medium size with a mean weight in adults that varies from 8 to 10 kg and a shoulder height that varies from 40.5 to 53.5 cm. The strong hindquarters allow a caracal to bridge long distances when jumping and it is an adept climber of trees. The coat colour is yellowish-brown to red and each of the pointed ears has a tuft of black hair. The name caracal is derived from the Russian name karakal or the Uzbek name garah-kulak and both these names mean black ear. The caracal was first described scientifically in 1776 as Felis caracal by Schreber based on a specimen that was collected near Table Mountain in the Western Cape province of South Africa. When it was realized that it was not a species of Felis, a new genus Caracal was coined for it by Gray in 1843. The caracal is not a type of lynx and its closest relatives are the ocelot Leopardus pardalis of the Americas and the golden cat Profelis aurata of central Africa.

Caracal caracal is a member of the family Felidae and the genus Caracal only contains one species. The ancestors of the caracal reached Africa from Eurasia some 8.5 to 5.6 million years ago. The oldest fossil in Africa has been found at Omo in Ethiopia in fossil beds that are 2.5 million years old. In South Africa fossil caracals are known that are 1.81 million years old and these caracals lived alongside early humans at Swartkrans in the Gauteng province. Other caracal fossils from the same era lived in Swaziland, Zambia and Turkey. Ever since the domestication of small livestock some 12 000 years ago, the caracal has been a predator of small livestock and the first Khoi-Khoi pastoralists already experienced this problem.


There are seven subspecies of caracal in the world of which three occur in South Africa. Caracal caracal damarensis occurs in central and southern Angola, Namibia, southern Botswana and the Northern Cape province of South Africa, Caracal caracal limpopoensis occurs north of the Soutpansberg Mountain Range in South Africa and the Caracal caracal caracal occurs elsewhere in South Africa. The caracal occurs in the entire Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, the Mid-East and India. In South Africa it is only absent from the far north-western corner. The habitat choice is wide and the caracal occurs everywhere except in true deserts. It occurs in plantations and the forests of the Western and Eastern Cape provinces but is avoids dense evergreen forests. In mountainous regions it occurs as high as 3300 m above sea level. The preferred habitat, however, is semi-arid savannas and grasslands that contain clumps of dense shrubbery or trees.

The caracal is mainly active at night but in protected areas it may at times be active by day. When it feels threatened, it will seek cover in dense trees of shrubbery, or in loose rock piles. It is a solitary animal and the size of its range varies with prey density and habitat suitability. In the Karoo, for example, an adult male will have a mean range size of 48 km² which is three times as large as that of an adult female. In the Kalahari, however, the mean range size of an adult male is in excess of 300 km² because of a low prey density.

In southern Africa a caracal mates at any time of the year although most of the kittens are born from October to February. A male caracal becomes sexually mature at the age of 12 to 15 months and a female at 14 to 16 months. Gestation lasts from 68 to 81 days and the litter size varies from one to six kittens. The kittens are born in aardvark or porcupine burrows, hollows in trees or between loose piles of rock. The birth place is lined with fur and/or feathers. At birth the eyes of the kittens are closed but they open when a kitten is ten days old. The kittens leave their place of birth when they are a month old and wean when they start to hunt at an age of three months. Young caracals disperse as far as 65 km away from their place of birth when they are a year old. A female can reproduce for 18 years. In the wild, the caracal is preyed upon by lions, leopards and spotted hyaenas.

The caracal hunts small mammals such as springhares, hyraxes (dassies), hares, field mice and rats by preference but it will also pluck birds out of the sky with its claws. Small carnivores that are also preyed on include mongooses, otters, genets, bat-eared foxes, silver (Cape) foxes, black-backed jackals and wildcats.

Caracals are by preference hunters and a caracal will only cover its own fresh prey under leaves or pull it into a tree to feed on it again later. It may, however, occasionally scavenge from the fresh prey of another carnivore. A prey animal is stalked with care and is killed following a short, rapid charge. The prey is killed with a bite to the throat or neck and a caracal leaves tell-tale claw marks on the back of its prey. The bite marks are deep and are some 26 to 30 cm apart. The prey is eaten on the kill site by starting between the buttocks around the anus, the shoulders or the neck. Feathers and fur are plucked with the incisors so as to reach the meat. The stomach, intestines, pieces of skin and the portion of the skull containing the teeth of a prey are seldom eaten.



Bothma, J. du P. and C. Walker 1999. Larger carnivores of the African savannas. Pretoria: J. L. van Schaik, pp 116 -129.

Skinner, J D and C T Chimimba (Eds) 2005. The mammals of the southern African subregion, third edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 397 - 401.

Sunquist, M and F Sunquist 2002. Wild cats of the world. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 37 - 47.

Wozencraft, W. C. 2005. Order Carnivora. In: D E Wilson and D M Reeder (Eds), Mammal species of the world – a taxonomic and geographic reference, third edition. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, p 533.


article by Prof J du P Bothma



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