The caracal is widespread in Africa, being excluded only from true desert and from the western and central forest blocks (Nowell & Jackson, 1996).
Because of its short tail and prominent ear tufts, the caracal is often called the desert lynx but it is not related to the lynxes. The short reddish-brown pelage on the back and flanks is contrasted by the white fur on the chin, throat and ventrum. Most notably, the caracal's ears, which are long and slender, are topped by long tufts of black fur. Caracals tend to be nocturnal in the warmer areas of their range, and diurnal in the cooler areas. They are solitary animals, coming together only to mate.
In the wild, caracals will eat guinea fowl, desert partridges, hedgehogs, rodents, mongoose, duikers, dik-diks, mountain reedbuck, fawns of impala, bush-buck and kudu. Rock hyraxes are killed very frequently and remains were found in 53% of 200
scats which were examined. Vegetable matter and insect remains have also been
found in caracal faeces. Grapes and green grass have been seen inside their
stomachs. They are agile, and have been known to jump to catch birds. Humans in India train these cats to catch birds, hares, and small mammals, much like dogs. They are very agile and have been observed taking on prey many times their size, such as gazelle.
Categorical-discrete (CD) distribution model
The species occurs in drier savanna and woodland regions, with a preference for the Acacia and Commiphora woodlands, thickets and Karoo scrubs. Absent only from rain forest and true desert, it is also found in the Saharan mountain ranges and rocky and hilly deserts (Nowell & Jackson, 1996; Estes, 1991; Skinner & Smithers, 1990; Osborn & Helmy, 1980; Kingdon, 1997).
All black or melanistic specimens have been recorded. Mendelssohn (1989) describes a dark colour form, which appears to be grey. The kittens of these animals are almost black.
Caracals have been classified in the same genus as lynx (Lynx) and also with the other small cats (Felis). Wozencraft (1993) elevated the caracal to its own unique genus in the most recent review of cat taxonomy.
There are nine recognised subspecies of caracal:
|F. (C.) c. caracal
||Sudan to Cape Province
|F. (C.) c. algira
|F. (C.) c. damarensis
|F. (C.) c. limpopoensis
||North Transvaal and Botswana
|F. (C.) c. lucani
|F. (C.) c. michaelis
|F. (C.) c. nubicus
||Sudan and Ethiopia
|F. (C.) c. poecilictis
||Niger and Nigeria, West Africa
|F. (C.) c. schmitzi
||Central India to Arabia
Law et al. (1987) state that the Israeli and Indian populations are classified as the same subspecies (F. (C.) c. schmitzi), but are very different in appearance. Definitions of the subspecies of many animals are the subject of much debate.
Caracals are said to be nocturnal but they are often seen during the day. In colder areas they are more diurnal. They will rest in dense vegetation or a natural rock crevice. Social behaviour is limited to courtship and mating.
Females require no help from the males to rear their offspring, which will be driven off as soon as they are old enough. Their distinctive and contrasting ears are used to accentuate facial expressions, an "ear-flick" is used as a mild threat gesture. Good climbers, they take to trees when pursued by dogs. Kills are sometimes dragged up into the fork of a tree where the carcass can be devoured at leisure. Described as fierce, they have been observed to drive away hyaenas.
Male caracals have overlapping home ranges which are larger than those of females. Weisbein and Mendelssohn (1990) measured male home ranges as 220 km2 on average, ranging from 98 to 352 km2. Female home ranges varied from 2 to 112 km2 and averaged 57 km2. They overlapped by about 27% (males by 50%).
Female ranges generally exclude others so that they can rear their offspring.
Old caracals lose their defended areas to younger more vigorous individuals and are forced to wander.
Reputed to be extremely fast runners, caracals are the fastest cats of their size. They often make vertical leaps several feet high in pursuit of birds, to knock them down.
The phrase "To put the cat among the pigeons" refers to the caracal. Wagers were placed by the Indian Moghuls on the cats, as they were released into tame pigeon flocks, the object was to see how many they could disable.
Marco Polo reported that the Grand Khan of Cathay used them to hunt. Apparently easy to train, caracals were used to hunt hares, crows, cranes, peafowl and even kites.
Caracals use the big cat technique of a throat bite to kill mountain reedbuck. These antelopes are about twice the size of a caracal (25-30 kg), and form an important part of their diet. In one study, mountain reedbuck were found in 20% of caracal scats, making 70% of their mass. Small cats usually hunt prey smaller than themselves and therefore do not need to use the throat bite to subdue a larger animal.
Usually two or three, but occasionally up to six, kittens are born in an old porcupine or aardvark burrow, under a bush or in a rock crevice. Caracals do not seem to have a particular mating season; in South Africa the kittens are mainly born in July and August; in Zimbabwe, September and December. Copulation occurs over six days. A female will copulate with a number of males in apparent order of size, body weight and age. Gestation lasts for 61 to 79 days, and the kittens may remain with their mothers for about a year. In 45 days the kittens start to eat meat regularly and they will be weaned in four to six months.
Their eyes take about a week to open and they are first able to walk after nine days. Female caracals become sexually mature by 21 months. When the offspring leave the maternal ranges, males may migrate over 90 km away, and females will usually stay in their mother's vicinity. Caracals have lived for 18 years in captivity.