As part of our biosphere conservation program volunteers regularly collect images from our two camera traps set up in the West Coast Fossil Park.
Although the locations are chosen randomly, the team looks for signs of activity such as paths through vegetation, animal tracks and droppings. The first site they chose is quite an open area near a road and was selected due to its proximity to a Karoo rat nest. The second is in an old mine pit amongst Port Jackson trees, chosen because it was in an area dominated by invasive trees and has been set up for almost two weeks now.
Images are stored on an SD card in the camera so all that volunteers need to do is transfer these to the computer. The whole team then reviews these in the evening at the volunteer house. You can imagine the squeals of excitement from everyone as they saw the first images of this caracal (Caracal caracal) as they are such a highly secretive species as well as being nocturnal (they are most active when air temperature drops below 20 °C), making them extremely difficult to observe.
Our second set of images of the caracal were in a different location just over a week later.
We already knew that caracals were using the area in the Fossil Park, but now as the team learns more about them, the information can be used in the Fossil Park’s education system. We certainly hope to spot more of them in the area whilst also collecting pictures of the areas they use and learning more about their movement patterns.
The caracal is also sometimes called the desert lynx or African lynx due to its tufted ears (although it is not of the lynx species and is the largest of Africa’s small cats reaching 40-50 centimetres at the shoulders, with males weighing up to 18 kilograms (40 lb) and females up to 16 kilograms (35lb). The word “caracal” comes from the Turkish word “karakulak” which literally means “black ear”.
Caracals have a uniformly sandy coat with the abdomen being lighter in colour and often with small reddish markings. They are slender yet robust, with long legs, a short face, long tufted ears and long canine teeth. The eyes appear to be narrowly open due to the lowered upper eyelid, probably an adaptation to shield the eyes from the sun’s glare.
Being territorial, caracals live mainly alone or in pairs and preys on smaller mammals, birds and rodents. Its speed and agility make it an efficient hunter, able to take down prey two to three times its size. Amazingly, it can leap higher than 3 metres (9.8 ft.) from a sitting position to catch birds in mid-air. It can even twist and change direction in mid-air. It is also a skilful climber.
Large prey are killed by a throat bite, while smaller prey are suffocated by a bite on the back of the neck. Mammals make up the majority of their diet with lizards, snakes and insects being infrequently eaten. Even grasses and grapes are occasionally eaten. Unfortunately, they are notorious for attacking livestock, leading them to be seen as a “problem animal” and are heavily persecuted in farming communities.
Like other cats, the caracal meows, growls, hisses, spits and purrs. The lifespan of a caracal in captivity is nearly 16 years! The actual number of caracals in the wild is unknown, and so a thorough assessment of their population status is not possible.
- Egyptians often portrayed caracals in wall paintings and in bronze as elegant hieratic figures sitting upright or as guardians of tombs.
- Egyptians also embalmed their bodies and placed them in tombs.
- In Persia and India (until as recently as the 20th century), the caracal was trained and used to hunt birds as well as hares, foxes and small antelope.
- They were also used in gambling then and would be exposed to a flock of pigeons. People would bet on which caracal would kill the largest number of pigeons. This is probably what gave rise to the expression “to put the cat among the pigeons”.
After asking our volunteers and team in Langebaan what they hope to capture next on our camera traps, the response was a unanimous “Leopard”! Of course, it would absolutely fantastic to capture a shot of a cheetah mom and cub too…