CatSG

Caracal

Caracal caracal

IUCN Red List: Least Concern

Weight: 6-18 kg
Body length: 80-100 cm
Tail length: 20-34 cm
Longevity: 16-19 years
Litter size: 1-6 cubs

Description

Molecular evidence supports the classification of the caracal as a monophyletic genus. It is closely related to the African golden cat (Caracal aurata) and the serval (Leptailurus serval).  In the past it was classified with Lynx and Felis but is not closely related to them.

The caracal is a mid-sized cat with a slender, conspicuous, tall body and long legs. It is the largest of the African small cats. The fur of the caracal is short and tawny-brown to brick-red coloured without any markings, and its underparts are whitish. Near the nose and the eyes, the face is marked with dark lines and white spots. Melanistic animals also occur. In central Israel, there was a dark form described with adults coloured grey and young kittens almost black. Its common name comes from the Turkish word karakulak. It means “black ears” and derives from its special ears which are black on the back and have a triangular shape tipped with 4-5 cm long black hair tufts. Its tail is short and measures about a third of the head and body length. Between its pads, it has stiff hairs as an adaptation to travelling over sand. As with other desert species the caracal has excellent sight and hearing. There is sexual dimorphism with males being on average larger than females in all respects. The caracals in India are somewhat smaller than those of Sub-Saharan Africa 

Other names

Language/Country

Name

Afghanistan (Dari)

psk qarh qol

Algeria (Berber)

warsal, bousboela, mousch, nouadhrar, aousak

Arabic

ajal, anaq al ardh, washag

Baguirmien

dijimé taikorlo

Botswana (Setswana; Ju/hoan Bushman)

thwane; ui

Bonouan

soumoli

Burkina Faso (Gourmanché)

pyabér

Chad

guétté anasa

Central Sahara (Tamacheq, Toubou (Touareg))

orei, ngam ouidenanga

Djerma

filiki

English

desert lynx

Ethiopia (Amharic)

ambassa

Farsi

car

French

caracal

German

Karakal, Wüstenluchs

India (Kutchi dialect of Gujarati)

hamotro (killer of blackbuck)

Kenya (Luo)

mwai

Kiswahili

simbamangu

Namibia (Hei/kum Bushman; Ovambo; Ju/hoan Bushman)

!hab; ayuku; ui

North-West Africa (Toucouleur)

daga

Peul/Foulbé

safandu

Russian

Karakal

Sahel (Hausa)

messo

Saudi Arabia

itfah

Somalia 

gedudene, maharra

South Africa (Africaans; Xhosa)

rooikat, lynx; ngada

Spanish

caracal, lince africano

Turkish

karakulak, stap vasa

Uganda (Luo)

mwai

Uzbek

karakulak

Zimbabwe (Shona; Ndebele)

Hwang, twana; indabutshe, intwane

Status and Distribution

The caracal is listed as Least Concern by the IUCN Red List. It is classified as Threatened in North Africa and as Critically Endangered in Morocco. In Egypt it is considered to be rare. 

The caracal is occasionally common, widely distributed in Africa and still occupies much of its historical range. However, it has locally been extirpated from areas with high human pressure or extreme habitat change; and on the edges of its range it suffered substantial habitat loss, especially in west and central Africa. In North Africa and in the savannah regions of west and central Africa, the caracal is rare, largely absent and more patchily distributed in pockets of drier habitats. In southern Africa the caracal is very common and thought to be stable. It is common in northern South Africa and southern Namibia where the biggest population of caracals are found and where there is evidence of range expansion into new areas. Also in east Africa, caracals are considered common on livestock lands. 

In the Western Cape of South Africa, a density of 0.23-0.47 individuals per km² has been recorded. In central and west Africa the densities are thought to be lower.

The caracal has a broad geographical range which extends across Africa to central and south-west Asia. It occurs from Africa to Turkey through the Arabian Peninusla and the Middle East to Turkmenistan and northwestern India. On the African continent, it is only absent from the tropical forests of western and central Africa and the deserts of Namibia and the central Sahara. It is present in the montane massifs and its fringes including Hoggar and Tassili mountains of SE Algeria and the Saharan Atlas, the Aïr of Niger, and edges of the great sand areas of Eastern Great Erg Tun and Alg. Its historical distribution range coincides with one of several small desert gazelles. In 2012 the species was pictured in the Mbari Drainage Basin, Chinko, Central African Republic.

Extant distribution area of the caracal (IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016).
Extant distribution area of the caracal in Africa. (IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016).

Habitat

The caracal inhabits a broad variety of habitats and can tolerate very dry conditions. It occurs in semi-deserts, steppes, savannah, scrubland, dry forest and moist woodland or evergreen forest. It prefers open terrain and drier, scrubby, arid habitats and needs cover. Caracals are absent from true deserts. It is typically associated with either well-vegetated or rocky areas. The maquis vegetation, which is rich with birds and small mammals, is known to be preferred in Turkey. On the edge of its distribution range, the caracal is also found in evergreen forests and mountain massive in the Sahara. In North Africa, it is most common in the humid forest zone of northern coastal regions and found in semi-arid woodland and the Saharan mountain ranges. The caracal does not inhabit true deserts and tropical rainforests. 

In Ethiopia the caracal was recorded up to 2,500m and exceptionally up to 3,300 m in the Ethiopian Mountains. 

Ecology and Behaviour

Caracal mother with her cubs.

The caracal is solitary and is predominantly nocturnal, but it can also be active during the day depending on its habitat (particularly in protected areas) and the daily temperatures. The species increases its daytime activity in winters. Usually the caracal may rest in dense vegetation or a rocky crevice, and may also may use a burrow for shelter during warm days. The caracal primarily hunts on the ground in spite of being an adept climber. It is known for its extraordinary jumping - it can jump two meters or more into the air. It often stalks birds and is then able to spring up and grab them when they flush. Traditionally, people in India and Iran tamed and used them for sport to watch contests with fenced caracals taking pigeons in this way. The caracal is adapted to dry habitats and is able to satisfy its moisture requirements from its prey when necessary.

The home ranges of male caracals are larger than those of the females and typically include several female ones. Home ranges in arid areas are larger than the ones in more moist habitats. In the Namibian ranch land, the home range of three males averaged 316.4 km². In South Africa, males in the Cape Province had a home range of 31-65 km² and females of 4-31 km². Home ranges are marked with urine, faeces and claw marks.

The reproductive season probably takes place all year round, but in the Sahara, breeding is reported to occur primarily in mid-winter. Females seem to copulate with several males in a “pecking order” which is related to the age and size of the male. Estrus lasts for 5-6 days, the estrus cycle for 14 days and the gestation for 78-80 days. The first reproduction takes place at 12.5-15 months for males and at 14-16 months for females. Gametogenesis can occur somewhat earlier. One female gave birth at 18 years and caracals may have one litter annually. Age at independence is with 9-10 months. 

Prey

A male caracal carrying its prey.

The caracal is a generalist predator. It preys mainly on a variety of small to medium sized mammals and birds. It usually takes prey weighing less than 5 kg such as young antelopes, hares, rodents, hyraxes, birds, mice and sometimes also invertebrates, fish and reptiles. The caracal has also the ability to take snakes. The caracal is able to kill prey measuring 2-3 times its own size such as adult springboks or young kudus and occasionally takes larger prey such as goitered gazelles. The caracal also preys on domestic animals such as sheep, goats and poultry in some regions. Outside protected areas, domestic stock can make up a significant part of the caracals diet. The caracal often scavenges. In Turkmenistan, tolai hares were the most important prey species. In Algeria, caracals to the northwest of Lake Chad are reputed to hunt dorcas gazelle, hence the local Toubou name is “gazelle cat”. In Iran, rodents seem to play an important part in the diet of the caracal and ground living birds are potential prey. In the Bahram’gur protected area, Iran, the main prey species were cape hare and various rodents including Libyan jird. The caracal occupies a broad unspecialized niche which bridges the small-large felid gap. 

Main Threats

One of the main threats of the caracal is habitat destruction. This is especially a problem in areas where the caracal is sparsely distributed such as in central, west, north and northeast Africa. Another major threat is hunting. The caracal is often seen as a pest due to occasional livestock predation, mainly in semi-arid regions of southern Africa. Especially in Namibia and South Africa it is often killed due to suspected livestock predation. From 1931-1952, it was estimated that in the Karoo region (South Africa) alone 2,219 caracals were killed per year because of control operations. In 1981, a total of 2,800 individuals were killed in Namibia. The frequency and severity of the livestock depredation seems to be dependent on the wild prey availability and husbandry techniques. It is supposed that the caracal takes more livestock in seasons with low wild prey availability but less when wild prey is abundant. When the caracal takes domestic livestock, surplus killing can occur when the attacked animals are enclosed and this, of course, intensifies the conflict with humans. In west and central Africa, hunting for skins and bushmeat poses the biggest threat to the caracal. Opportunistic hunting is generally widespread. In parts of southern Africa, recreational hunting of caracals with dogs and by spotlighting is common. The effects of such hunting activity on the populations are unknown. The caracal seems to be able to withstand a certain hunting pressure but in areas where it is naturally sparsely distributed or where it has been reduced to fragmented pockets hunting is likely a significant threat.

The caracal sometimes gets killed by other carnivores such as lions, hyenas and leopards when ranges overlap. In the Asian part of its range, habitat destruction is possibly the greatest threat besides hunting. In parts of its range, such as in northern Africa and Asia, the status and ecology of the caracal are not well known and little has been published regarding its spatial and conservation ecology. 

Conservation Efforts and Protection Status

The caracal populations on the African continent are included into Appendix II of CITES, while the ones in Asia are included in Appendix I. However, the caracal is not legally protected in most of its range. Hunting is prohibited in Angola, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mauritania, Mozambique, Nigeria, Zaire, Afghanistan, Algeria, India, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Lebanon, Morocco, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Hunting and trade is regulated in Botswana, Central African Republic, Senegal, Somalia, Tanzania and Zambia. There is no legal protection in Congo, Egypt, Gabon, Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Ivory Coast, Lesotho, Malawi, Mali, Namibia, Niger, Rwanda, South Africa, Sudan, Swaziland, Togo, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Oman, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates. In Namibia and South Africa it has the legal status of a problem animal which allows farmers to kill it without restriction. There is no information available for Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Qatar, Syria and Western Sahara.

There are efforts to improve the knowledge about the status and the ecology of the caracal outside Africa and protected areas. For example, a caracal project to research habitat ecology of the caracal was established in Turkey. Such projects are important to set priorities and are fundamental for the conservation of the caracal and the development of effective and ecologically sound methods for its management, especially on private land.

Caracals have an adaptable behaviour which seems to enable them to recolonize vacant areas after local extirpation. Without heavy persecution, the caracal adjusts well to living in settled areas. In this regard there is a need to minimize conflict with humans mainly with farmers, and more effective small stock protection. Caracals can even be beneficial for crop farmers since they can effectively limit pests such as hyrax populations.