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.
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.