Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark
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A three-month-old caracal seems to pose at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark

What is a caracal?

This medium-size wildcat roams the savannas, deserts, and forests of much of Africa and parts of the Middle East. Its coat is typically a tawny or reddish gold with a white chin, throat, and underside.

All cats are regal, of course, but the caracal actually seems to have a crown: Its large, pointy ears, tipped with black and tufted, are a trademark of the species.

These extraordinary ears each have over 20 muscles that swivel around like satellite dishes to detect sounds of their prey. The tufts may enhance sound going into their ears or be used to communicate—via twitches and other movements—with other caracals.

Powerful hunters

The fastest of the smaller African wildcats, caracals are supreme hunters. Their sandy-colored coats provide camouflage, and stiff fur cushioning their footpads makes them nearly silent stalkers.

Caracals are opportunistic predators, going after whatever they can find, including birds, rodents, mongoose, hyraxes, and even small monkeys.

Strong hind legs allow them to leap up to 10 feet high and grab birds from midair with their thick, hooked claws. Caracals will sometimes climb trees and cache their prey, like leopards.

Reproduction

Caracals sexually mature around one year to 16 months old and can mate year-round.

Females advertise their readiness to mate with urine marking, and responding males will fight for access. While the species is mostly solitary, various males will stay with females for several days, mating multiple times during that period.

Pregnancy lasts up to about 2.5 months, and mothers will use the abandoned burrow of another animal, like an aardvark, as a birthing den. Litters average around three kittens, with six being the maximum. Kittens are born blind and deaf. Their eyes will open at about 10 days old, around the same time their incisors first become visible.

Females raise the kittens without help from the males, nursing the kittens for four to six months, though kittens can eat meat by the time they’re a month old. By nine or 10 months old, kittens are ready to leave their mothers. Males disperse much farther than females, maintaining ranges about three times larger. The predators live to be about 12 years old in the wild.

Conservation concerns

Caracals are not declining in most of their range, but there are still threats to their populations. These include habitat destruction due to agriculture and retaliation killing, as caracals will hunt small livestock if given the opportunity.

The species is legally protected throughout much of its range. Landowners in Namibia and South Africa are permitted to kill a caracal when it is considered a threat to their property.

The Bobcat and the Caracal Two grumpy old wildcats find solace in each other’s company.