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.


14 thoughts on “Caracal 1 – King of the Urban Wilderness

  1. Nature on the Edge January 27, 2015 / 12:33 pm

    Reblogged this on Nature on the Edge and commented:
    Sightings of caracal on the urban edge are moments to treasure. Here Wilf describes these elusive creatures …..


  2. Laurel Serieys January 27, 2015 / 12:58 pm

    Hi Wilf and Liz- I am a caracal researcher in Cape Town and would love to hear more about your sightings and your properties. I have a website (in rough stages) for the project I’m working on: Please check it out and please email me!

    We are always looking for more info on these cool creatures and have learned a lot already, but have much much more to learn.

    Hope to hear from you-
    Laurel Serieys

    Laurel E.K. Serieys, PhD
    Biologist, Post-doctoral researcher

    A partnership between the University of Cape Town and the Cape Leopard Trust.

    (+27) 79 837 8814 | |

    “In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World.”


    • oururbanwilderness January 27, 2015 / 4:33 pm

      Hi Laurel, we’d be only too pleased to help. Although we had sightings of a mother with two kits a couple of years ago we haven’t spotted them recently. Our neighbours behind us on the mountain have had more recent sightings.


  3. Heyjude January 27, 2015 / 1:24 pm

    I was fortunate to glimpse one of these lovely creatures on a dawn drive in Addo NP some years ago. The tufted black backed ears were impressive from behind. I was so thrilled!


  4. pilipala51 January 27, 2015 / 1:59 pm

    I hope you manage to capture yours on camera. It is a beautiful looking animal.


    • oururbanwilderness January 27, 2015 / 4:39 pm

      We’ve been unlucky, they don’t hang around. But a friend was hiking up in the West Coast Park and spotted one sunning itself, so that is up in the next episode.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Spokie sny spoor January 27, 2015 / 2:13 pm

    I love rookats. I like the facts and story. Keep on with the good work …


  6. macmsue January 27, 2015 / 2:21 pm

    I have never heard of these animals but you make them sound charming.


  7. Leya January 27, 2015 / 11:08 pm

    Very interesting facts about this beauty – thank you!


  8. Pierre Cenerelli February 4, 2015 / 6:53 am

    Very interesting… I had not idea these existed (but then again, I live in the wrong part of the world).


    • oururbanwilderness February 5, 2015 / 4:48 pm

      Their distribution is fairly wide spread, although we consider ourselves lucky to still sight them in an urban setting. Thanks for dropping by Pierre.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s