CARACAL : Cat with long hair-tufts on ear tips

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The caracal (Caracal caracal) is widely distributed across Africa, central Asia and southwest Asia into India. In 2002 the IUCN listed it as Least Concern as it is widespread and relatively common, particularly in southern and eastern Africa, although there have been range losses in northern Africa. It is rare in the central Asian republics and India.

Classified variously with Lynx and Felis in the past, modern molecular evidence supports a monophyletic genus. It is closely allied with the serval (Leptailurus serval) and the African golden cat (Caracal aurata).

The cat was first described in 1776 as Felis caracal by a German naturalist Johann Christian Daniel von Schreber from a specimen, collected from Table Mountain, a flat-topped mountain in South Africa. it is considered the type locality of the species.  British naturalist John Edward Gray first used the generic name Caracal in 1843 on the basis of a type specimen collected near the Cape of Good Hope.

Etymology

The word caracal is derived from the Turkish words kara kulak, which means “black ear”. In North India it is known as syahgosh. In Persian, it is called siyah-gosh, which means Black ear, an animal of the panther-kind, where with they hunt deer; lynx. It is also known as African lynxAsian lynx and desert lynx, but is not considered to be a lynx species. The local Toubou name is ngam ouidenanga meaning gazelle cat. In Afrikaans it is called Rooikat, which means “red cat”.

Cat with long hair-tufts on ear tips 

The animal’s distinguishing feature is the presence of a long tuft of hairs on the tip of each black-backed ear, exceeding half the length of the ear. The coat of this long-legged, slender cat of medium size with a relatively short tail is patternless, except a few spots on the underside and inside of the fore legs.

Their skull is high and rounded with facial markings — a dark line running down the center of the forehead to near the nose, and one line running down from the inner edges of each eye to the nostrils on either side of the nose. Their jaw is short, but stoutly built having large powerful teeth. Approximately 92 per cent caracals lack second upper premolar teeth. There are white patches on either side of the nostrils.

Each eye is encircled by a light-colored ring and there is a rather indistinct dark brown patch over each eye. Pupils contract to form circles. Their pinnas’ inner surface is covered with small white hairs. Numerous stiff hairs grow from between the pads and are believed to be an adaption for moving through soft sand.

Fur on the back and sides is generally reddish, frosted-sand color or uniform tawny grey. Their belly and the undersides of legs and chest are whitish and spotted or blotched with pale markings. Black caracals are also found.

Males reach a head and body length of 70 to 106 cm, with 23 to 34 cm long tail. They can be 8 to 20 kg in weight. Females are smaller with a head and body length of 70 to 103 cm and 19 to 35 cm long tail. They weigh from 7 to 16 kg.

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Distribution and habitat

Historical range of the cat mirrors that of the cheetah, and both coincide with the distribution of several small desert gazelles. Caracals still occupy much of their historic range in Africa but have experienced substantial loss at the peripheries, particularly in north and west Africa.

They are still found widely across Africa, Central Asia, and south-west Asia into India. The extreme northern part of their range is limited by the Caspian Sea, Ustyurt and Aral Sea, hardly extending east of Amu Darya. In Turkmenia, these cats are known from the coastal plains at the mouth of the Atrek to the foothills of the Kopet-Dag, and extend over the extensive desert valleys eastward. They are also found along the Tedzhen River, in the deserts on both sides of the Murghab River and east of the Kushka River. The range extends south-eastwards through Iran, Baluchistan, Punjab (both in India and Pakistan) and central India to Uttar Pradesh.

Though the animal is commonly found throughout its range, there is concern over the status of populations on the edge of its range in the Central Asian republics and in Pakistan. They are widely distributed in Africa, absent only in the equatorial forest belt and much of central Sahara, but is present in the montane massifs of that desert and its fringes. Their range is continuous to the west and east of the central Sahara, linking the ranges to the south and north of the desert.

It has been observed that caracals favor drier woodland and savanna regions with lower rainfall and some cover, but they are also comfortable in open savanna and scrub land to semi-desert to moist woodland and thicket or evergreen and montane forests as in the Western Cape of South Africa. In sub-Saharan Africa, the animal is common in parts of its range, especially in South Africa and southern Namibia where it is expanding into new, and recolonizing vacant, areas. In Central and West Africa, where their presence is poor, densities are apparently lower, possibly due to finer partitioning of resources in a more diverse carnivore community. Caracals are also found in the Saharan mountains and semi-arid woodlands.

Distribution of subspecies

After Schreber first described caracal, several subspecies were described, but today only the following are recognized.

  • C. c. caracal (Schreber, 1776) – found in South Africa.
  • C. c. schmitzi (Matschie, 1912) – found from Palestine through Syria and Pakistan to India.
  • C. c. damarensis (Roberts, 1926) – found in Southwest Africa.
  • C. c. nubicus (Fischer, 1829) – found in Nubia.
  • C. c. algira (Wagner, 1841) – found from Algeria through Tunesia to Morocco.
  • C. c. lucani (Rochebrune, 1885) – found from Angola to north of the Congo River basin.
  • C. c. limpopoensis (Roberts, 1926) – found in Transvaal.
  • C. c. poecilotis (Thomas and Hinton, 1921) – found in northern Nigeria.
  • Russian zoologist Heptner described C. c. michaëlis in 1945 from the western Karakum.

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Surviving without water for long periods

Usually caracals spend solitary life, but they have also been seen in pairs. Since they have adapted to life in arid regions they have also developed capability to survive without water for a long period. Their water demand is satisfied with the body fluids of prey. These cats are highly agile and often capture birds by leaping 2 m (6.6 ft) or more into the air from a standing start. Their hunting strategy includes stalking the prey, approaching within about 5 m (16 ft) and then sudden sprint.

They usually hunt prey that are smaller than 5 kg (11 lb). This  includes mice and birds, hyraxes, springhares and gerbils. When they are hungry they do not hesitate in taking even the antelopes, like steenbok, mountain reedbuck, common duiker and springboks. Occasionally they tackle even the adult goitered gazelles. Smaller prey is killed with a bite to the nape, and larger ones by biting on the throat and then raking with their claws. Like some bigger cats caracals too sometimes cover larger prey if they are unable to consume the whole carcass in a single meal, and return to it later. Some have even been observed to hide carcasses in trees.

They produce the usual range of sounds for cats, including purring, hissing, growling and calling. Sometimes they also make a barking sound, which is possibly used as a warning. Like other cats they also scent mark their territory, for which they defecate in visible locations, spray urine on bushes and logs, or rake onto the ground with their hind feet.

In arid areas caracals have large home ranges. Where food is plentiful ranges tend to be smaller. On an average three males averaged approximately 320 km2 on Namibian ranch land. In the north of Saudi Arabia, a radio-tracked male ranged over 270 to 1,116 km2 in different seasons. In an agricultural area in Negev Desert in Israel male home ranges averaged approximately 220 km2. Home ranges of males overlap substantially (50 per cent), and typically include those of several females. According to the two dispersals that were recorded: a male migrated 60 to 90 km south before claiming a home range, while a female remained in the vicinity of her natal range, with her range partly overlapping that of her mother. Twenty caracals, of  which several were transients, were found utilizing 100 km2 with some ranging outside this area, making for a relatively high local density despite the large home ranges. Where there are better water availability in the habitat in South Africa, male home ranges are smaller. For instance in South Africa’s West Coast National Park home ranges of two males were found to be covering average area of 26.9 km2, and those of three females 7.39 km2. Male home-ranges overlapped completely with those of females, whereas female ranges overlapped among themselves between zero and 19 per cent. Caracals are found to be active both during day and night. As far as mobility is concerned males travel more than twice the distance covered by females during the active period.

Mating in “pecking order”

Females mate with several males that too in a “pecking order”, which is related to the size and age of the male. One female was observed to have mated with three males during every estrus period. Interesting part was that each time the mating took place with the same individuals and in the same sequence. There are instances when males have been observed fighting aggressively to get an access to females and to remain with one for several days to guard against rivals; in other cases they were found to be less protective.

Mating takes place round the year. In the Sahara, it is reported to occur primarily in mid-winter. Estrus lasts 5–6 days and copulation can last from ninety seconds to ten minutes.

Caracals have gestation period of 69 to 81 days and their litter size varies from one to six kittens. After the mating is complete female searches out a safe burrow, cave or tree cavity to give birth to her young. Kittens are born blind. At birth they weigh 200 to 255 g, and open their eyes between four and ten days of age. They start going out of their den when they are about a month old. Their deciduous teeth or milk teeth are fully developed at the age of 50 days. They are weaned at about ten weeks. Canine teeth appear when the young caracals are four to five months old, with the others following over the next six months. Young cats remain with their mothers for up to one year, when they start to reach sexual maturity. In captivity, they have lived to be 16 years old.

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Threats

In west, central, north and northeast Africa, where these cats are sparsely distributed, habitat destruction due to agriculture and desertification is a major threat. Same factors are also likely to be the main threat in the Asian part of its range. The habit of these felines to attack small domestic livestock often brings them face to face with it’s most powerful adversary — the man — against whom they do not stand any chance.

Especially in Iran small livestock killing has brought the animal into serious conflict with locals, who try to eradicate it completely. The cat has never been recorded to be killed in road incidents, and it seems that there is no severe poaching pressure on it.

Conservation

Caracal hunting is prohibited in many countries which include India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Syria,  Tunisia, Turkey and Turkmenistan. In sub-Saharan Africa it is protected in about half of its range states. In Namibia and South Africa it is categorized as a “problem animal” and landowners are permitted to kill the species without restriction; nonetheless, caracal have persisted and remain widespread.

In 1998, the caracal was hybridised with a domestic cat at the Moscow Zoo.

In Religion and Cultures

Caracals are known to have held some religious significance for the ancient Egyptians. This is evident from the fact that sculptures of caracals and other cats have been shown guarding the tombs, caracals have found place in the wall paintings and even their bodies were embalmed to preserve them.

Historically, these cats were used in India for the purpose of hunting and blood sports. A popular sport in India was to have a captive caracal set upon a flock of pigeons and other birds, whereupon bets were made on how many birds could be caught by the cat. Trained caracals could ground as many as a dozen birds. Today, as well as in the past, they have occasionally been kept as exotic pets in India, Africa, North America and many other places.

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