Colours of Wildlife: Caracal

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Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"

Caracal by Willem

This kitteh is a Caracal, Felis caracal, or sometimes Caracal caracal. It is Africa's largest small cat, reaching 20 kg/44 lbs in weight and a shoulder height of 45 cm/18". Caracals also occur in Asia, as far as north-western India, and much of Arabia. They're easy to recognize by their reddish body colour, and the long, black tufts they have on their ears. The name perhaps comes from a Turkish name for it, which means 'black ear'. They have long, powerful limbs – especially the hind legs – and big, broad feet. Their tails are quite short, reaching only about halfway to the ground when standing relaxed. Caracals are in many ways similar to the lynxes of the northern hemisphere, but are thought to be more closely related to the African Serval cat (which will be featured here soon).

The conspicuous, long-tipped ears are likely used as communication signals between caracals, along with the black markings around the face and mouth. Caracals that meet will wave their heads and flick their ears, which communicates things like status and their intentions towards each other. They make cat-like sounds… meowing as a general call, purring when content, growling when not, hissing and spitting when really angry. They also have a distinctive, coughing, mating call.

Unpopular Kittehs?

Caracals have the sad honour of being considered the main 'problem animal' in much of South Africa. And for once, the reputation is deserved. They are powerful predators that can kill animals twice their own size, and they do indeed feed on poultry and livestock up to the size of small, adult sheep and goats. They're also clever and versatile and will find new ways to get to their prey if prevented. Unfortunately farmers persecute them by cruel methods, that also harm some other wild critters. There is a re-think necessary about how to deter them. But it's also necessary to consider that they can to a degree benefit farmers, by killing hyraxes, which compete for food with domestic stock, and also jackals.

But actually, the fact that farmers consider them formidable opponents, is a testament to their prowess as hunters. With their muscular hind legs they can make prodigious leaps, and have been attested to have snatched several birds out of the sky in the course of a single jump. Indeed, they were at a time used in the Middle East in a sport where they were thrown in with a bunch of pigeons, to see how many of them they could kill (probably the origin of the phrase 'to put the cat among the pigeons'). In Egypt and India they were tamed and used for hunting. They're as good at jumping for height as for distance, a semi-tame female having been recorded at reaching a height of 3.4 m/over 11' against a wall.

In the wild, caracals hunt by stealth, speed, strength and skill. They can climb trees rapidly and expertly, but mostly hunt on the ground. They're mainly nocturnal, and most wary in regions where they're most intensively persecuted. They eat anything from the size of birds and rodents, to small antelopes. They kill the prey rapidly with a bite to the throat or the neck. They'll pluck the feathers from birds and long fur from small mammals prior to eating them. They don't eat carrion, preferring fresh prey they kill themselves. They sometimes eat plant material, perhaps for the sake of purging or getting rid of intestinal parasites.

In their habitat, caracals have an amazing ability to escape detection. If they encounter humans using a flashlight in the night, they'll turn around and run away, not turning to look back until they're very distant – so at best giving just a brief flash of eye-shine and then disappearing. In the daytime, if they're about, their reddish-brown colouring actually gives them great camouflage amidst the reddish soils and rocks of the dry bushland. They can also crouch flat and 'disappear' behind the meagrest of cover such as low rocks and bushes. They're the ninjas of the cat family (and with the cats already being the ninjas of the carnivore order!).

Most of the time, caracals occur singly, males and females patrolling their own territories. They briefly come together in the mating season, which is spring to summer in South Africa. The female gives birth to up to four kittens in a den, which can be situated between rocks or dense bushes, in an abandoned Aardvark hole or even a hollow in a big tree. Like domestic kittens, they're born blind and helpless. Their eyes open at around nine to ten days. They make chirping, bird-like sounds to ask their mothers to feed them. They grow quickly and are adult and independent at the age of one year.

In Southern Africa, caracals differ somewhat in appearance in different regions. Animals from the dry south-western regions are paler in colour than those in the moister, north-eastern regions. There are even some melanistic (fully black) individuals. They differ also in appearance at different times of year; especially in the seasonally-cooler regions, they grow fairly long, protective fur in the winter. They range through diverse habitats, from woodlands to grasslands and semi-deserts, especially in rocky regions offering suitable dens. They're only absent from moist rainforest and from true desert. While being reasonably common in South Africa, they're much rarer in regions further to the north. They were held in very high esteem by the ancient Egyptians, and as far away as China, were obtained from trade and used as gifts by royalty. Today, in spite of persecution, they're at least not threatened with extinction.

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