The Cederberg Caracal Project was started in 2012, in collaboration with the Cape Leopard Trust, and is based in the Cederberg Mountains. The project focuses primarily on the ecology and behaviour of caracals (Caracal caracal).
The project also aims to improve the current knowledge about this elusive species in relation to a bigger predator, the Cape leopard as well as with livestock farmers.
Why the caracal?
Although caracals are widespread throughout Africa, little has been published regarding their spatial ecology and the way they interact with other predators. There is a paucity of data addressing even the most basic ecological questions for many smaller cat species and the caracal is no exception. More data are urgently needed to answer basic questions and develop strategies for effective conservation and management both within and outside reserves. Increased knowledge regarding the range use of caracals is fundamental in terms of furthering the understanding of this cat's ecology.
According to the IUCN Red Data List, the caracal's population status is of Least Concerned (LC) in southern Africa. However, its status is Near Threatened (NT) in northern Africa, which means that it is likely to qualify for a threatened category in the near future. These statuses were last assessed in 2008, and given the gaps in our knowledge regarding the population trends of caracal, there could be reason for concern. Moreover, we know that caracals are very often killed by farmers, because of the damage these cats cause to small livestock. Caracals are classified as problem animals in South Africa and are highly persecuted by farmers.
Information on caracals
The caracal, Caracal caracal (Schreber, 1776), is a medium-sized, solitary feline weighing between eight and 20 kg, with a length of between 60 and 91 cm. It is closely allied with the African golden cat (Caracal aurata) and serval (Leptailurus serval). Caracals are also called African or desert lynx in other parts of Africa because of their long black tufted ears. That's where their name comes from, as caracal means "black ear" in Turkish. Their body colour varies from reddish-brown to tawny-grey, but occasionally entirely black individuals may occur.
Where are caracal found?
Caracals are widely distributed across Africa, central and south-west Asia. On the African continent, they are absent only from the equatorial forest belt and from much of the central Sahara, but they are present in the montane massifs of that desert. Apart from the mountain regions such as in the Cape, the historical range of the caracal mirrors that of the cheetah, and both coincide with the distribution of several small desert gazelles. Caracals still occupy much of their historic range in Africa but have experienced substantial loss at the peripheries, particularly in north and west Africa.
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 locations, and recolonizing vacant areas. The aim of the Cederberg Caracal Project hopes to add to the available literature on caracal behaviour and ecology, to further our understanding of this iconic animal.
Studies have yielded the following range sizes:
- In the Cederberg an adult male caracal was collared by The Cape Leopard Trust with a GPS collar and had a range of ~100km2
- Males range recorded on Namibian ranchland as ~300 km² (Marker and Dickman 2005).
- In Saudi Arabia, a radio-tracked male ranged up to to 1116 km² (Van Heezik and Seddon 1998).
- An Israeli study showed home ranges of males averaged 220 km² (Weisbein and Mendelssohn 1990).
- Males averaged 27km² in the West Coast National Park, South Africa, with a recorded density of 0.23-0.47 caracal/km² (Avenant and Nel 1998).
- Female ranges are considerably smaller than males.
What do caracal prey on?
Caracals prey mainly on small- to medium-sized mammals, from small murids to antelope up to 50 kg, but they will also take birds, reptiles, invertebrates, fish and some plant matter). Caracals often scavenge. In the Cederberg, caracal diet included small antelope such as klipspringer, grey rhebuck and grysbok, as well as other predators such as Cape fox and black-backed jackal. Caracals prefer to consume only the meat from their prey and will seldom eat bones.
What are the major threats to caracal?
Pressure on caracal populations in the Cederberg Conservancy would mostly come from leopards, the larger competing predator in the area. Beyond the Conservancy boundaries, caracals do come into conflict with farmers and may be persecuted. This is the case where livestock are available prey items and will be eaten opportunistically. In most natural areas however, there is sufficient natural prey available to these cats.
Caracal research in the Cederberg project area
Using data collected from GPS radio collars will allow the Cederberg Caracal Project to conduct an ecological assessment of caracal in this mountain region covering both Karoo and Fynbos habitats. The Cederberg Caracal Project plans to undertake a number of further objectives, including:
- Plotting the home ranges and movements of caracals by mapping data from GPS collars.
- Determining the density of caracal in the region using GPS collars.
- Comparing the spatial ecology of caracals and leopards in the Cederberg Mountains as well as their behavioural ecology.
- Verifying how caracal habitat and feeding ecology varies with different biotic and abiotic factors in the region.
- Finding and suggesting practical solutions to reduce human-wildlife conflicts between caracals and farmers.
To date we have managed to collar one female and three male caracals. One of the males is collared with a VHF collar which we would like to replace with a GPS collar when we recapture him. Each caracal is numbered in order of capture, and the number is preceded by the letter 'F' (female) or 'M' (male) and the letter 'C' to donate caracal, e.g. MC2 is the second male caracal captured and collared.
Preliminary data from the Cape Leopard Trust GPS collared caracal MC2 (Rocky) shows, using GPS cluster analysis, that they can stay on a kill for up to 115 hours. Rocky has killed prey varying from klipspringer, grey rhebok, grey duiker, grysbok, dassie, bat-eared fox to even killing and eating a black-backed jackal. Of 21 caracal kills located in the Cederberg using GPS points, only one was a lamb.
The research being undertaken by the Cederberg Caracal Project relies heavily on costly, high-tech equipment, such as GPS collars and camera traps. The costs of these and other project necessities mean that we are very reliant on external funding. If you wish to see what the project needs to run optimally, check out the wish list by clicking here.