Caracal - The Elusive and Mysterious Cat of the Himalayas

By Kalpana Palkhiwala
Deputy Director(M & C), Press Information Bureau, New Delhi

New Delhi, Feb 23, 2011 (Washington Bangla Radio / PIB-India) Certain species are very hard to find like the snow leopard and the red panda that live in the high reaches of the Himalayan Mountains and  in the rain forests. But, this is not so with the Caracal because it resides in the easily approachable main lands of India, some are also the main tourism hubs of India such as Ranthambhore and Sariska. Yet, to sight  this mysterious cat  is not easy.

Caracals are small cats, but are amongst the heaviest of all small cats, as well as the fastest. Males typically weigh about 13-18 kg (28-40 1bs), while females are smaller. The Caracal is 65 cm in length (about 2 ft), plus 30 cm tail (about 1 foot). It has longer legs and a slimmer appearance than a lynx. Caracal is a Turkish word “karakulak” which means “black ear”. Caracals are known and called by many names; The Indian Lynx  has no hindi or urdu name but it is known as ‘Siagos’ which is in Persian. It has a popular name in Rajasthani ‘Mor mar Bhageri’. The kutchi dialect of Gujarat has a name for it ‘Harnotro’ meaning haran (Chinkara) like colour. The Caracal is  also called Persian lynx or African lynx. The Caracal resembles a lynx and for a long time it was considered a close relative of the lynxes. Recent DNA research, however, has shown that the Caracal is not a close relative of lynxes at all, but is instead related to the Serval-the African cat with long legs.

Scientific name of caracal is Caracal caracal (Schreber, 1776). Like the Tiger, Caracal also have nine subspecies but this figure is disputed and not agreed upon universally.

These nine sub-spices are the Caracal caracal caracal, East, Central and South Africa; Caracal caracal algira, North Africa; Caracal caracal damarensis, Namibia; Caracal caracal limpopoensis, Botswana; Caracal caracal lucani, Gabon; Caracal caracal michaelis, Turkmenistan (endangered); Caracal caracal nubica, Ethiopia, Sudan; Caracal caracal poecilotis, West Africa and Caracal caracal schmitzi, Israel, West Asia, Iran, Arabia, Pakistan, India.

The feline can be easily recognized by its appearance and gait, irrespective of size. Huge eyes, a short flat face, supple spine and retractile claws (with an exception – the cheetah) describes a cat. In behaviour too, cats are typical - secretive, largely nocturnal (with a few exceptions), solitary (again with an exception – the lion) and mostly uncommon. All these physical, morphological and behavioural traits make the cat a  ‘supreme predator’.

Legal Status

Caracal is listed in Appendix II of CITES, although the Asian subspecies, C.c.schmitzi and C.c.michaelis, considered to be rare or threatened, are listed in Appendix I of CITES C.c. schmitzi is classified as Schedule I species in Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.

Habitat

The Caracal inhabits a wide range of habitats and is found globally. It once had a distribution similar to that of the cheetah (Accinonyx jubatus) through most of the arid and semi-arid regions of India. A rapid change in Land-use patterns through most Caracal habitats over the last few decades has drastically reduced its range and numbers. Its current distribution in India is restricted to the drier parts (Corbett and Hill, 1992; Kitchener, 1991 ; Nowell and Jackson, 1996). Wild populations of Caracal have nearly reached extinction in the thorn scrub jungles of Kutch and western India.

Since 1996, YV Jhala, Dinesh Sharma, and Bharat Jetwa of the Wildlife Institute of India have had eight sightings of the Caracal in the Kutch district of Gujarat. Besides, its sightings has also been reported from other known areas - Narayan Sarovar, Gujarat; Sariska Tiger Reserve, Ranthambore National Park and Bikaner district, Rajasthan; Melghat tiger reserve, Maharashtra and Chambal  Area of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Divya Shrivastva and Dharam Khandal also worked for a long time in Ranthambhor Area and spotted Caracals after hardwork. Caracals are native to Africa, Asia, and even certain areas of the Middle East.

Behaviour and Ecology

The Caracal is a powerful and adept hunter, with close range stalking culminating in a final swift leap. This very athletic feline is capable of leaping to almost four metres to grab a bird in flight. Though it is a solo hunter, the adult female is often seen accompanied by one or more of her kittens while stalking. Caracals are sometimes preyed upon by lion, hyena and leopard. In some areas Caracal competes for prey with lion, leopard and the painted hunting dog.

Social Structure

Like most other small cats, caracals are solitary predators, coming together only to breed. During other parts of the year, caracals maintain exclusive territories that preclude entry by members of the same sex. Caracals appear to breed year around, giving birth to anywhere from one to four cubs. Gestation lasts 78 to 81 days. Males are sexually mature at 12 to 15 months, and females are sexually mature at 14 to 16 months.

Body Shape and Size

The caracal is a medium sized cat. Its hind legs are longer than its front, which helps it in leaping in the air. The front legs and shoulders are heavily muscled, to help it clamp on to its prey. The female attains an adult body mass of ten to 11 kilograms, with the male usually twenty to thirty percent larger. Adult body length is characteristically 61 to 90 centimetres, the tail adding an additional thirty percent. Jaws are extremely powerful. Its hind paws are smaller than its front paws, but are still large enough. All the paws are wide, and well padded, to help its movement remain quiet in grass, or to walk in a deep silence. Each paw also ends in four retractable claws, which are four to five nails breadth in length. They are capable of tremendous aerial acrobatics jumps and can land safely. This is “fastest of all the small cats”. The caracal has also been known to leap up into the air to successfully catch flying birds as prey.

It has a short tail compared to jungle cat. The caracal is normally dark red, wine red, grey, or golden sand in colour. Melanistic (black) caracals also occur. Young caracals bear reddish spots on the underbelly that disappear when they grow up. Adults do not have markings except for black spots above the eyes. Caracal possesses a very unique distinguishing physical feature. Its ears are elongated, narrow and tipped with long black tufts of black hair on top of each ear. These “ear tufts” can be as long as 3 inches and help insure the Caracals survival. The ears are controlled by 20 different muscles to help them find their prey. The tufts pinpoint their prey. In most cases, everything in nature has a purpose. In this case, not only do the ear tufts help direct sound waves into the animal’s ears, but they also help reduce noise created when the animals head disturbs low lying branches. This maximizes the probability of catching prey.

Caracal  species is known for black markings above the eyes and white fur under the chin and on the chest and belly. A thin black strip connects the inner eye edge to the nasal zone. When the pupil contracts, the resulting geometric shape are not slit-like, but achieve a circular form.

Eating Habits

This cat ranges over a broad geography, but its populations are threatened in many parts of its distribution, particularly in Asia and parts of the Middle East. Chiefly a solitary hunter, it is most often found in semi-arid grassland and scrubland, and is capable of subsisting with access to little surface water. Caracals have been revered by some ancient cultures, the prime example being extant Egyptian wall paintings and caracal sculpture found guarding dynastic tombs.

Caracals feed primarily on small antelopes and gazelles, hares, and small rodents. Depending on availability and habitat, livestock, reptiles, and carrion also play an important role in their diet. In South Africa and Namibia, caracals are considered a significant predator of sheep. Because of their exceptional leaping ability, birds play an important role in their diet.

Human and Caracal

Other than cheetah, the caracal was the only other animal which was used by the Moghul’s for hunting in those days. Caracals have been revered by some ancient cultures, the prime example being extant Egyptian wall paintings and caracal sculpture found guarding dynastic tombs.

(PIB Features)