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the web of life in southern Africa

Caracal caracal (Caracal) 

Desert lynx [English]; Rooikat, Lynx [Afrikaans]; Wiistenluchs, Karakal [German]; caracal [French]; simba mangu [Swahili]; indabutshe, intwane [isiNdebele]; ingqawa, ngada [isiXhosa]; indabushe [isiZulu]; thwane [Setswana]; hwang, twana [Shona]; nandani [Xitsonga]; thwani [Tshivenda]; twani [Lozi]; shilizabula [Yei]; !Hab, IApa Ihab [Nama, Damara]

Life > Eukaryotes > Opisthokonta > Metazoa (animals) > Bilateria > Deuterostomia > Chordata > Craniata > Vertebrata (vertebrates)  > Gnathostomata (jawed vertebrates) > Teleostomi (teleost fish) > Osteichthyes (bony fish) > Class: Sarcopterygii (lobe-finned fish) > Stegocephalia (terrestrial vertebrates) > Reptiliomorpha > Amniota > Synapsida (mammal-like reptiles) > Therapsida > Theriodontia >  Cynodontia > Mammalia (mammals) > Placentalia (placental mammals) > Laurasiatheria > Ferungulata > Ferae > Carnivora > Family: Felidae (cats) > Subfamily: Felinae

Caracal caracal (Caracal)

Caracal, West Coast National Park, South Africa. [photo Coke Smith ]

Caracal caracal (Caracal)

Caracal on the prowl, Kalahari Desert, South Africa. [photo Callie de Wet ]

Caracals occur from Africa through to India and occupy a wide range of habitats. They are solitary in habit except when mating or the mother is accompanied by young. Prey includes mammals up to the size of bushbuck, as well as birds and reptiles. They are considered vermin by farmers because they attack livestock.


The name caracal is derived from the Turkish for “black ear”, as its most recognizable features are its pointed tufted black ears and striking facial markings. One of the larger of the small cats, it has as stocky body shape and the hind quarters are higher than the shoulders. The coat is thick with short reddish–fawn to brick red fur (the Afrikaans name rooikat is very descriptive). The tail is shortish and quite thick. The back of the ears are black and the facial markings consist of clear black and white patches around the eyes and mouth. The canine teeth are heavy and sharp, well adapted with powerful muscles to deliver a killing bite. The shearing blades of the carnassials (large shearing premolar teeth) slice the meat into pieces. There are no grinding teeth as the food is swallowed with no chewing.

Distribution and habitat

Widespread and numerous in the southern African subregion but absent from some parts of KwaZulu-Natal and along the Namibian coast. It occurs widely throughout the rest of Africa and extend into the Middle East and as far as India. It occupies a wide range of habitats, from semi-desert to savanna woodland. Also found in hilly country and coastal forests.


Height at shoulder 40 - 45 cm; weight range 7 - 19 kg.

Dental Formula

 I C P = 24 or I C P M = 30 (the presence of molars and an additional upper premolar is variable).

General behaviour

A secretive animal that is active mainly at night (nocturnal) and shelters during the day in thickets, rock shelters or holes. They also climb trees and lie among the branches. The caracal is a quiet animal, but purrs when content and hisses, growls and spits when threatened or alarmed.

Hunting and food

Caracal are very agile hunters and can leap in the air to catch birds, such as guinea fowl, on the wing. Prey animals range from mice to antelope the size of bushbuck. They also eat reptiles. They hunt by stalking their prey and getting as close as possible before pouncing on it or chasing it in a short fast pursuit. Remarkable powers of concealment can hide them in very sparse cover. The attack is very fast and prey is killed either by a bite to the throat or the nape of the neck.


Typical of most cats, they are solitary except when mating or mothers are accompanied by young. The gestation period is about 79 days. Kittens are born once a year, with an average litter containing 1-3 kittens. The young are born in summer in a lair amongst boulders, thick bushes or disused aardvark burrows. They remain with their mother for 10 months before dispersing to other areas.


Caracal have few natural predators, except man. Hunted and trapped in small stock farming areas, it is considered vermin – as it catches sheep and goats. Currently not regarded as threatened but in the future is in danger of losing suitable habitat due to human activities, building, farming, etc.


Text by Denise Hamerton