The caracal (Caracal caracal), also known as the desert lynx, is a wild cat that is widely distributed across Africa, central Asia and southwest Asia into India. In 2002 the IUCN listed the caracal as Least Concern as it is widespread and relatively common. The felid is considered threatened in north Africa, and rare in the central Asian republics and India.
The German naturalist Johann Christian Daniel von Schreber first described Felis caracal in 1776 from a specimen collected from Table Mountain, South Africa, which is considered the type locality of the species. The generic name Caracal was first used by the British naturalist John Edward Gray in 1843 on the basis of a type specimen collected near the Cape of Good Hope. The word caracal is derived from the Turkish words "kara kulak", which means "black ear".
The caracal is distinguished from Felis by the presence of a long tuft on the tip of the ear, exceeding half the length of the ear. There is no trace of pattern in the coat, except a few spots on the underside and inside of the fore legs. It is a slender, long-legged cat of medium size with a relatively short tail. The fur on the back and sides is generally of a uniform tawny grey or reddish, frosted-sand colour. The belly and the undersides of the legs and chest are whitish and spotted or blotched with pale markings. The tufted ears are black-backed. Black caracals also occur. The skull is high and rounded. The jaw is short, stoutly built and equipped with large powerful teeth. About 92% of caracals lack the second upper premolar teeth. Males reach a head and body length of 75 to 105.7 cm (30 to 41.6 in), with a 23.1 to 34 cm (9.1 to 13 in) long tail, and weigh 8 to 20 kg (18 to 44 lb). Females are smaller with a head and body length of 69 to 102.9 cm (27 to 40.5 in) and a 19.5 to 34 cm (7.7 to 13 in) long tail. They weigh from 7 to 15.9 kg (15 to 35 lb).
Facial markings comprise a dark line running down the center of the forehead to near the nose, and another one running from the inner edge of the eye to the nostrils. The pupils of the eyes contract to form circles. A light-colored ring encircles the eyes, and a rather indistinct dark brown patch occurs over each eye. There are white patches on either side of the nose. The inner surface of the pinna is covered with small white hairs. Numerous stiff hairs are growing from between the pads and are probably an adaption of moving through soft sand.
Distribution and habitat
The caracal occupies a wide variety of habitats from semi-desert to relatively open savanna and scrubland to moist woodland and thicket or evergreen and montane forest as in the Western Cape of South Africa, but favours drier woodland and savanna regions with lower rainfall and some cover. In sub-Saharan Africa, the caracal is common in parts of its range, especially in South Africa and southern Namibia where it is expanding into new, and recolonizing vacant, areas. In Central and West Africa, where they are largely absent, densities are apparently lower, possibly due to finer partitioning of resources in a more diverse carnivore community. They are also found in the Saharan mountain ranges and semi-arid woodlands.
The extreme northern part of the felid's range is bounded by the Caspian Sea, Ustyurt and Aral Sea, barely extending east of Amu Darya. In Turkmenia, caracals are known from the coastal plains at the mouth of the Atrek to the foothills of the Kopet-Dag, and extend over the extensive desert valleys eastward. They are also known along the Tedzhen River, in the deserts on both sides of the Murghab River and east of the Kushka River. The range extends south-eastwards through Iran, Baluchistan, Punjab and central India to Uttar Pradesh.
Distribution of subspecies
Subsequent to Schreber’s first description of a caracal from South Africa, several subspecies were described, of which the following are recognized today:
- C. c. caracal (Schreber, 1776) − inhabits South Africa;
- C. c. nubicus (Fischer, 1829) − inhabits Nubia;
- C. c. algira (Wagner, 1841) − ranges from Algeria through Tunesia to Morocco;
- C. c. lucani (Rochebrune, 1885) − ranges from Angola to north of the Congo River basin;
- C. c. schmitzi (Matschie, 1912) − ranges from Palestine through Syria and Pakistan to India;
- C. c. poecilotis (Thomas and Hinton, 1921) − inhabits northern Nigeria;
- C. c. damarensis (Roberts, 1926) − inhabits Southwest Africa;
- C. c. limpopoensis (Roberts, 1926) − inhabits Transvaal.
Ecology and behaviour
Adult caracals are solitary, but have also been observed in pairs. They produce the usual range of sounds for cats, including growling, hissing, purring, and calling. Unusually, they also make a barking sound, which is possibly used as a warning. They scent mark their territory, leave faeces in visible locations, and also mark territory by spraying urine onto bushes or logs, or raking it into the ground with their hind feet.
Their home ranges are large in arid areas. Three males averaged 316.4 km2 (122.2 sq mi) on Namibian ranchland. In northern Saudi Arabia, a radio-tracked male ranged over 270 to 1,116 km2 (100 to 431 sq mi) in different seasons. In an agricultural area in Israel’s Negev Desert male home ranges averaged 220.6 km2 (85.2 sq mi). Home range size was positively correlated with body weight, and negatively correlated with prey availability. Male home ranges overlapped substantially (50%), and typically included those of several females. Two dispersals were observed: a male migrated 60 to 90 km (37 to 56 mi) south before establishing a home range, whereas a female remained in the vicinity of her natal range, with her range partly overlapping that of her mother. Twenty caracals, several of them transients, were found to utilize an area of 100 km2 (39 sq mi) with some ranging outside this area, making for a relatively high local density despite the large home ranges. Male home ranges in better-watered environments of South Africa are smaller. In the West Coast National Park, South Africa, home ranges of two males averaged 26.9 km2 (10.4 sq mi), and those of three females 7.39 km2 (2.85 sq mi). Male home-ranges overlapped completely with those of females, whereas female ranges overlapped between zero and 19%. Caracal were active by night and day, and significantly longer on nights colder than 20°C. Males moved more than twice the distance of females during an active period.
Caracals can survive without drinking for a long period — the water demand is satisfied with the body fluids of prey. They are known for their ability to capture birds by leaping 2 m (6.6 ft) or more into the air from a standing start. They hunt by stalking their prey, approaching within about 5 m (16 ft) before suddenly sprinting. They kill smaller prey with a bite to the nape of the neck, and larger animals by biting the throat and then raking with their claws. They sometimes cover larger prey if they cannot consume the whole carcass in a single meal, and return to it later. Some have even been observed to hide carcasses in trees. They live mainly on prey that is smaller than 5 kg (11 lb) including hyraxes, springhares, gerbils, mice and birds. They can also kill antelope, mountain reedbuck, springbok, common duiker and steenbok.  Occasionally they tackle adult goitered gazelle.
Reproduction and life cycle
Mating occurs year round. In the Sahara, breeding is reported to occur primarily in mid-winter. Estrus lasts 5-6 days. Females copulate with several males in a “pecking order” which is related to the age and size of the male. One female was found to have mated with three different males during every estrus period, each time the same individuals in the same sequence. In some areas, males have been observed to fight aggressively for access to females and to remain with one for several days to guard against rivals; in others, they appear to be less protective. Copulation can last from ninety seconds to ten minutes. Gestation lasts from 69 to 81 days, and litter size ranges from one to six kittens. Female use caves, tree cavities or burrows as shelter when giving birth. Newborn kittens weigh 198 to 250 g (7.0 to 8.8 oz), and open their eyes between four and ten days of age. Kittens venture outside the birthing den at around one month of age. Their deciduous teeth are fully developed at the age of 50 days. They are weaned at about ten weeks. At around four or five months, the canine teeth appear, with the others following over the next six months. The young stay with their mother for up to one year, when they start to reach sexual maturity. In captivity, they have lived to be 16 years old.
Relationship with humans
Habitat destruction due to agriculture and desertification is a significant threat in central, west, north and northeast Africa where caracals are naturally sparsely distributed. It is also likely to be the main threat in the Asian part of its range. As caracals are capable of taking small domestic livestock, they are often subject to persecution. Severity of depredation appears to be dependent on the availability of wild prey and husbandry techniques.
Populations in Asian range states are included in CITES Appendix I; populations in African range states are included on Appendix II. Hunting of the species is prohibited in Afghanistan, Algeria, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Lebanon, Morocco, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. In Namibia and South Africa, the caracal is classified as a "problem animal", which permits landowners to kill the species without restriction; nonetheless, caracal have persisted and remain widespread.
Historically, caracals have been used in India for the purpose of hunting and blood sports. A popular sport in India was to have a captive caracal set upon a flock of pigeons, whereupon bets were made on how many birds could be taken down by the cat. A practised caracal could ground as many as a dozen birds.
Today, as well as in the past, caracals have occasionally been kept as exotic pets in Africa, India, North America and elsewhere. The ancient Egyptians depicted them in wall paintings, embalmed their bodies and placed them in tombs.
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