Caracal 2 – The killing

Liz’s dramatic encounter with the caracal came in late afternoon when she was slaving over her computer.

“I heard a thud against our patio sliding doors. The sun blinds were down and thinking that one of the guinea fowl had run into the glass I was taken aback to see a rather bewildered caracal.

“It had obviously attacked its own reflection and took a moment to take stock before moving across the patio. To witness a carnivore species such as this out hunting in an urban space is an exciting event. At close quarters I was able to admire it’s sturdy build and powerful back legs as it padded past. The tufted ears with the long black-haired tassels added to its air of elegance.

“The drawcard for our caracal is the dassie colony: plump prey for the picking. I had a good vantage point to observe the action below and I could hear the dassie sentry emitting highly agitated alarm calls.

“The cat was quick and agile and camouflaged perfectly against the reddish brown of the boulders. It didn’t take long to scent out and catch it’s prey. Once it had pounced, a clean neck bite put the creature out of it’s misery instantly.

“As it returned across the patio carrying one of our dassie family, I couldn’t help but feel a little sad for the loss to the colony, but at the same time admired the skill of the hunter.”

Residents of the Cape Peninsula have spotted this elusive cat in diverse areas, but there is no accurate data on their numbers or distribution. So it is heartening to follow the work being done by the Animal Demographic Unit (ADU) at the University of Cape Town with The Nature Conservation Corporation (NCC) and their use of trap cameras.

Members of the public can help by sending photographs and reporting sightings to add to data for the Cape Peninsula Mammal Atlas Project. This data of all mammals is stored in a “virtual museum” hosted by the ADU which contributes towards a better understanding and conservation of all the mammal species.

Research upcountry in the Cedarberg area, where caracals are tracked with GPS collars, is helping to learn much about this secretive animal’s spatial as well as behavioural ecology.

Caracal © Penny SmithPhoto credit:  Penny Smith

In the past the caracal was much maligned for raiding farmlands, especially after a couple of incidents when a pair went into killing frenzy and slaughtered dozens of sheep but ate off only one. Research shows their prey is more often wild creatures, including real pests like mice and rats.

We saw the caracal several more times in full daylight in our seashore wilderness. He was in no hurry and quite unworried by the presence of humans as he walked expertly across the tumbled rocks

I say “he” but the last time there was no doubt about the gender. She came strolling from the left again, where there is a dense growth of bush that could well hide a den, on to the lawn at a leisurely pace, looking straight ahead.

On either side of her, level with her flanks, walked two kittens about a third of her size, the same tawny russet colour, miniatures of mom.

Again she slowed when she passed us, glanced up and moved on. The kittens kept station but looked back over their shoulders at these strange long creatures gazing down at them.

It was a magic moment, one to be treasured, a rarity in any lifetime not just an urban one.

There were other sightings in the neighbourhood around the same time of a female with two kittens. The dassie population that year was on high alert and our colony decreased from fifteen adults to seven.

One neighbour living up the mountain reported finding the remains of a grysbok, a small buck, stashed in the branches of a low tree, a practice common to only the leopard and the caracal.



Caracal 1 – King of the Urban Wilderness

The monarch of our little urban wilderness is much like his counterpart out there in the big wild like the Kruger National Park: fast, powerful, a killer, ruthless, perfectly designed for the job – but he is vastly smaller.

The male African lion weighs in at up to a quarter of a metric ton; the caracal at about 20 kg max, a pussycat by comparison. There is one other big difference: the lion is brimful of conceit, a lazy slob, an African snob. He is nocturnal by nature but never bothers to hide himself by day, loafing around in the sun with his females if he has any, confident there is little threat to his hedonistic lifestyle – except perhaps an elephant or rhino or passing herd of buffalo, none of whom look for trouble.

Our king is a reclusive, well-mannered gentleman.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPhoto credit: Shaun Mitchem (Wikipedia) licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

Our first sighting of our caracal (or “rooikat” as it aptly known in Afrikaans – “red cat”) was ten or twelve years ago. Fundi Dor and I were standing at our picture window at about ten in the morning looking down at the lawn and the seashore beyond. An animal appeared some thirty metres away on our left, coming towards us over a mound at a leisurely pace. We couldn’t make out what it was at first, thinking it was a dog but the face was all wrong.

And then, about a dozen paces away, it walked boldly on to the lawn and we saw it clearly: a caracal. We were stunned. In our previous eleven years of bush life we had never seen one although they are common.

This one ambled up from the left, paused not more than three metres away to look up and examine us, those brilliant eyes shining, then loped on unconcerned as if out for a morning stroll. It disappeared into our neighbour’s garden, a lovely jungle so tangled a rhino could hide there.

Caracals are widespread from most of Africa as far as India in various sub-species distinguished mainly by their colour ranging from dark grey-brown to pale russet. They live in dry country. They can exist without water (unlike cousin lion) getting what they need from their prey. Although a member of the cat family, the caracal is most closely related to the serval and the African wild cat, which are common enough in the wild but not in our neighbourhood.

It is a truly majestic creature with long legs, a lean and muscular body and a triangular head topped by its distinguishing feature: two large, shell-shaped ears, black on the back and white inside. They are about half the length of the face and made more striking by tufts of long black hair projecting from the tips.

Another rare feature is its short tail, about a third of the length of its body of more than a one metre. It is very much like that of the North American lynx or bobcat, which is similar in a number of respects. For many years this made taxonomists think they were variations of the same species but in fact they are quite different – a good example of parallel evolution.

Our lady mongoose also has a short tail but there is no relationship; hers got lopped off in some mysterious bush dalliance.

This caracal (or maybe caracals because we have no way of knowing how many are around) is extremely shy. In sixteen years in Our Urban Wilderness we have between us seen him or her) only four or five more times since that first sighting. One of these, by Liz the Lens, was of a once-in-a-lifetime kind.

Our caracal has a smooth, pale red or russet coat that glows almost yellow in sunshine. Typically, it is slightly darker down the middle of the back. Its belly and the backs of the legs are white or off-white. The face is strong with large slanted eyes whose pupils, unlike those of the everyday slit-eyed tabby, contract in circles. Long whiskers project horizontally from either side of the black nose.

Standing about half a metre tall at the shoulder, he seems to glide across lawn or rocks on his big paws. His legs are so strong he can project himself two metres straight up to snatch a bird out of the air.

The word “caracal’ comes from Middle Eastern names like “kara kulak” or “garah-gulakh” which mean “black ear”. They have been recorded there over centuries and in North Africa and were often raised as pets because they tame easily if found young.

Mouse 5 – The Homing instinct

The story continues from last week /-

It moved with smooth grace and great speed when it wanted to, Mighty Mouse on steroids.

Okay, now that we had caught it, what did we do with it? Answer: take it far from the house and release it into the wild.

Not wanting to cause it post-traumatic stress disorder by over-long imprisonment without trial, we took it out that very night to a long stretch of open land beyond the next two homes in our enclave. That’s more than a hundred metres distant.

We returned satisfied. Half the job done, only the other pygmy to catch now and our trap worked perfectly. We slept well.

Next evening we set up the trap again and duly caught the second mouse, giving it the same treatment.

Job well done. Mice disposed of, none hurt, everybody happy.

The next night the pygmy mouse, or a pygmy mouse, appeared in the kitchen as usual. It was baffling. We had seen only two and then rarely together. Surely there couldn’t be a whole family?

We caught this one too and went through the same procedure – into the bush.

The night after a mouse was there again, which made four mice if they were different ones. Or were they somehow coming back, my wife suggested? If so, how could we tell? They all looked exactly the same. We would have to identify them somehow. She had the right idea: paint them, just a dab of colour on the body. It turned out to be a great deal easier said than done.

The next evening we trapped a mouse once more without a clue which one it was. Dor fetched a bottle of red vegetable dye she used in cooking and a small artist’s paintbrush. We opened the trapdoor, she dipped the brush in dye and reached into the box. The result was spectacular.

The pygmy took off like the ball in a manic squash match, zooming at Mach 5 all over the interior, so fast it became a blurred streak. Every time Dor poised the brush to dab the mouse rocketed away. She couldn’t get near it.

Eventually, after considerable sweating and swearing, mouse and brush collided more by accident than design and the mouse had a patch of red on its flank.

It promptly sat down in the middle of the cage and licked it all off.

Tired of small game hunting, we gave up for the night and dumped it in the bush with the rest. We knew we would have another one to play with tomorrow.

And so we did. What convinced us it was one of the same original pair was its familiarity with the kitchen. What puzzled us was that it had not learned from experience. It roamed for a time then made a beeline for the trap, marched in, grabbed the crumb of tennis biscuit and found itself back in the clink with a clunk. Possibly it enjoyed the room service. Maybe it was an habitual recidivist.

Now Dor was determined to mark it irremovably. She found a small tin of green oil paint in the workshop, dipped the brush and the branding race began again. The mouse zoomed around the box in all directions at once until at last there was the inevitable collision and it had a small but very obvious green brand on its bum.

No way was it going to lick that off.

We carted it out to the wilds, this time walking another hundred metres or so further before opening the door to let it out. It seemed rather reluctant to leave.

But yes, the next evening the mouse was back in kitchen, the same one without any doubt. We could not tell by the green brand because that had gone, vanished almost completely. The mouse had plucked out all the hairs with paint on them leaving only a tiny spot of green on naked skin.

It was one very clever and bold mouse. But now we had its measure, more or less, and there remained only one more step we could take to defeat it: remove it a lot further.

That night we walked a long way from home, almost a kilometre, before we freed it into a mini-jungle of tall grass and bushes sloping down to the sea.

One down. The following night another mouse appeared as expected – brandless, not our captive of the previous evening therefore its elusive partner. That was encouraging. Again Dor wielded the brush, the mad race ensued and a second branded pygmy was sent forth almost a kilometre distant, near somebody else’s house.

The next day was one of painful anticipation. If a pygmy mouse reappeared it would be a moral defeat. The psychological impact would be severe.

We would have to carry it so far it would take years to find its way back . . . take the cable car, leave it on top of Table mountain.

Night came. Whiskey eased the pain of waiting somewhat. By midnight – no mouse. We had won!

We have never seen a pygmy mouse since. We almost miss them.

Mouse 4 – The trap

The kitchen became their main port of call because of crumbs and other minute detritus from the day’s work which escaped Fundi Dor’s vigorous sweeping. However, their behaviour never changed much and we were concerned that they might decide to make our home theirs on permanent tenure and we would have the same problem as with the stripey mother and her brood. Also, we did not want more tassel-less rugs.

But how to remove them? An ordinary trap cage for rats wouldn’t work because they were so small they would step right out through the wire mesh. Anyway, they were so light they couldn’t trigger the trap.

Therefore, make a pygmy trap. I built a five-star model which would win a medal at the Royal Expo. My neighbours thought I was crazy. For a mouse? Good God, man, what’s wrong with a mousetrap?

It was La Elegance, the George Cinq of mousetraps, pour prendre de souris without harm. All it needed was hot and cold running water.

It began as a simple wooden box with sides and roof of wire mosquito screen and a hinged door which could be tripped shut once the mouse was inside. It worked but Mr or Mrs Minutoides calmly chewed their way out through the mesh and headed for the kitchen.

So, reconstruct. It ended up as a wooden-ended box with a floor-to-ceiling perspex wall, a ceiling of stronger mesh, a trapdoor in the ceiling through which to supply room service, a small dark corridor where the current resident might wish to sleep during daylight hours, and the key to success – a portcullis which the mouse triggered itself. The whole thing was about twice the size of a shoebox.

A tiny hole was bored low down through the perspex. A cotton thread went through this, up the outside and over a stanchion to fasten to the top of the portcullis. A piece of tennis biscuit was looped on the end of the thread inside the suite to hold it there and tensioned just enough to keep the portcullis up and open.

Launching day came. We placed the box on the kitchen floor next to the cupboards and waited. Right on time a pygmy mouse emerged from somewhere (we never did find where they spent their days – our house is full of boltholes) and trotted briskly into the kitchen. It wandered about for some minutes before approaching the box.

Aha, something new. The mouse was no fool. It walked all around the box, sniffing busily. It smelt the piece of tennis biscuit no bigger than a shirt button. It paused at the open entry. The falling door was poised right above it; obviously it had no experience of mousetrap architecture. It walked in, step by slow step, across the floor of the box to the biscuit. It nibbled. The biscuit collapsed, the thread slipped out through the hole, the falling door fell with a clunk.

The mouse whipped around so fast it was a blur but not fast enough. It was caught, fair and square, unhurt. It shot up a wall, tried to bite through the mesh roof and failed and dropped back. For several minutes it scuttled across every centimetre of the inside of La Elegance until it reached the conclusion there was no way out. It tried chewing the thread hole larger but the perspex was too tough. Finally it gave up and sat there in the middle of the pygmy prison, quietly awaiting whatever fate might bring.

Through the trapdoor Fate brought more biscuit, a tiny pan of water, raisins, bread and pieces of fruit. The mouse did not try to escape when we opened the trapdoor and hid in the bedroom.

Although not as colourfully attractive as the four-striped mouse, the pygmy was beautiful in the perfect symmetry of its tiny body, its dark shining eyes and the fairy paws holding its food as it ate, so small one wondered how they could accommodate bone and muscle.

It moved with smooth grace and great speed when it wanted to, Mighty Mouse on steroids.

Okay, now that we had caught it, what did we do with it? Answer: take it far from the house and release it into the wild.

To be continued next Friday 16 Jan /-



Mouse 3 – Mini mouse

Continuing on from last week’s episode …..

That lesson taught us how to do it right when we had a mouse encounter. In spite of that the next time it happened we were outsmarted by one of the smallest mammals on earth.

Pygmy mouseThe above photo is licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – “Mus musculoides hirse fressend” by AleXXw – Own work.  (Related to Mus minutoides)

We were watching the evening news when out of the corner of my eye I saw a slight movement along the wainscot of the wall to my left, just inside the limit of my peripheral vision. I turned my head look but nothing was there. My imagination or old age I decided.

There it was again, a quick flick of colour in the expanse between the TV set and the sideboard. I looked and again saw nothing. Nor did Fundi Dor.

We thought no more of it and went to bed.

The next evening I saw it again, this time in the lounge. No, this wasn’t imagination. A cockroach maybe? We never get them. A cricket? We would have heard it playing its raucous fiddle by now.

I sat and watched and what appeared: a mouse. A baby mouse trotting along the skirting, nose to the carpet, tail horizontal. An ordinary house mouse, or so I thought. But if there was one where were the rest? Babies never wander about alone. There should be a whole family, mother and several offspring.

Over the next few days we saw it a number of times because, we realised, “it” was in fact two, male and female. We also realised these were not house mice but something different. Unlike a house mouse they were not particularly bothered by our presence and and ambled about as close as two or three metres from us as long as we sat still. Sharp movement made them run but not very far or for very long.

They were pale brown with pure white underneath and about half the size of mus musculus, some 10 cm long, of which less than half was tail. Their ears seemed disproportionately large, nearly as big as those of cousin musculus. And by their deliberate behaviour they appeared to be adult, not pups.

Yet again we turned to our animal bible, ”The Mammals of the Southern African Subregion”, and there they were: pygmy mice, very appropriately titled Mus minutoides or “minute mouse”.

Also known as the Cape pygmy mouse because this is where they were first identified, they are found in a wide belt of Southern Africa from Zimbabwe in the north down the eastern side of South Africa and across the whole Eastern Cape and Western Cape to the Atlantic.

Rather surprisingly, to us, it is said they seldom enter houses, preferring their burrows under rocks and rubble. They have a trick that shows they are far from dumb and might even qualify as tool users. At night they stack pebbles outside the entrances of their burrows and first thing in the morning they drink the dew that has collected on the pebbles then go to bed for the day.

We have no qualms about setting instantly lethal traps for house mice because they can rapidly breed into infestations doing much damage and they may carry diseases. We had no such intentions for this quaint little creature because as far as we could determine they are not rampant breeders and are harmless.

Instead we opted to watch them briefly. They emerged after dark and scampered around the living room and kitchen, pausing only to snap up bits of bread or cheese or some other innocuous snack from leftovers. They never seemed scared of us although they never became quite as tame as the stripeys, which one could feed by hand after a while.

To be continued next Friday 9 January / –