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January 2004

Feature

 


Controlling the caracal

Paul Collett

Caracal are bottlefed until they can eat by themselves.She starts off her morning by gently tugging at his hair. It's only five in the morning but when a growing three month old is hungry, it's time to wake up. Only Sphinx is no ordinary three month old. She is a domesticated caracal. Born in captivity and facing an uncertain future out in the wild, she was adopted into a conservationist's household.

Watching Sphinx, a gentle, playful, intelligent and rather large cat as she stalks one of her toys or imaginary prey, it is hard to reconcile this image with that of a wild cat, the source of much tension and grief in farming communities. Caracal and other small predatory cats have been domesticated worldwide. It may be relatively easy to control a domesticated caracal, but what of the rest of her species in the wild? The question is: How can the caracal be controlled? Paul Collett reports.

The Caracal Felis caracal

A female caracalThe caracal, species Felis caracal, are known throughout southern Africa as the Rooikat, an Afrikaans word literally translated as "redcat" after its soft reddish-brown coat. Caracals are also sometimes referred to as African lynx or Desert lynx. They are easily recognisable, being cats of medium build with powerful legs and a short tail. Their ears have characteristic long black tufts on the tip, and their faces beautifully marked with a white chin, black upper lips and a black line running vertically through the eye. They measure some 40-45 cm at the shoulder and have a mass of up to 17kg in males and 11,5kg in the females.

Caracals are predominantly nocturnal and it is unusual to sight them during the day as these intelligent creatures are highly adept at concealment in the most meagre cover. Except for mating, this solitary creature is hardly seen in pairs.

Sphinx hidden in some dried leaves.The caracal is an opportunistic feeder, adapted to living under a range of conditions and is quite capable of killing prey much larger than itself. Large rams of Mountain Ribbok (Redunca fulvorufula), with a mass of 35kg are easily killed by the caracal. They feed mainly on mammals but will also eat birds, reptiles and to a lesser extent, invertebrates. Where they occur in the same habitat as dassies (Procavia capensis), these form a major part of their diet.

A range of mammals caracal may feed on
steenbok
duiker
springbok impala
grysbok 
juvenile kudu 
scrub hare
red rock rabbit
springhare
black-backed jackal
Cape grey mongoose
bat-eared fox

The Problem

The trouble is that small stock such as sheep and goats are easy prey for these cats and are therefore frequently taken as a substitute for natural prey. The problem is compounded when their natural prey populations have been reduced by injudicious hunting with dogs.

Considering the sheep farmer with numerous resident caracal, it is easy to understand why the caracal are viewed as vermin. It is a problem that cannot be ignored.

The drier areas of southern Africa are best suited to small-stock farming, and the economy of the entire Karoo region is largely dependant on sheep and goats. Young livestock, and young game such as springbok are easily preyed on. When predators prey on the young, there is no increase in stock numbers, an unhealthy situation for a commercial farmer.

Paul and David Collett, both scientists and farmers in the Karoo are tackling the problem head on, in an environmentally friendly way. Paul Collett says they may have come up with a natural solution, simply by controlling caracal numbers.

Caracal control

Many methods have been used to control damage to small stock by the caracal and the oldest of these is the metal trap. It is effective in the hands of a qualified trapper, but it is not selective, also trapping a large percentage of non-target animals such as small antelope, game birds and innocent small predators. Poison as a control would only exacerbate other environmental problems. The use of a well trained and controlled pack of hounds has proved highly successful but only subject to certain criteria being met.

A male trapped by the baited trap method.The most satisfactory method it seems is the baited cage trap, but choosing the right bait can be tricky. Using live bait (such as a small rabbit) may work but then it is difficult caring for a caged animal at vast distances. Simply using meat is also pointless as it deteriorates too quickly out in the open. Going a bit more hi-tech using commercial pheromones is also problematic as they are difficult to collect and very expensive to manufacture.

There is however an alternative. Caracals are territorial. Observing the size of territories occupied in the Mountain Zebra national Park, scientists have shown that males dominate larger areas (up to 30 square kilometres) than females (up to 6 square kilometres), moving an average distance of approximately two kilometres per night, whereas females move only one kilometre. And while they roam, they mark their territory by urinating on scent posts around the perimeter. Any new felid approaching the territory sniffs at these scent posts to establish the boundaries of the territory and the identity of the resident cat. Paul Collett investigated whether caracal urine could be used to lure others to a cage trap.

Caged caracal provide a ready source of this scent. While in captivity, caracal urinate repeatedly in certain spots in the cage. Once these are established, Angora goat skins with two months hair growth are placed in the chosen areas, developing a characteristic odour containing pheromones. A piece of this skin is placed in the back of each cage trap as bait, the theory being that other caracal which come to investigate the "scent post", would enter the cage trap, treading on the pedal which causes the door of the cage to close.

His proposed solution worked. A total of 32 caracal in an 8500 hectare area over one calendar year were trapped in these baited cages.

Female caracal in holding cage.After studying the effectiveness of different types of urine bait (male only, female only and male and female), his research showed that the most effective was the combination of male and female scent from urine. Furthermore, his studies also showed that the cooler months were a more effective time for capturing caracal. He reasons that the scented goatskin may lose its effectiveness during warmer periods as the odours dissipate more easily. The cooler periods may however simply just coincide with young weaned caracal beginning to roam freely as they try to establish their own territories.

But does trapping live caracal solve the problem?

According to the Colletts who now employ this method on their sheep farm in the Karoo, the method is a success. By trapping caracal, they are able to move them to areas with low caracal numbers, or where caracal are not problem animals; game farms springing up in the area providing the most likely new homes. They have observed that when caracal numbers in their region are moderate, that there is an increase in natural prey animals such as hares, steenbok and dassies. Caracal then tend to leave adult livestock untouched, preferring their natural prey instead. Lambs and goat kids however remain too much of a temptation for the caracal. By lambing and kidding in protected areas, and using the cage trap method, losses of livestock can be almost entirely eliminated.

Working with their neighbours, the Colletts are now active in controlling caracal numbers in their region. They keep male and female pairs in cages, long enough to produce enough scented goatskins for further control of caracal numbers. And occasionally the pair produce more than just scented goatskins. They give birth to one or two kittens at a time. And as attitudes begin to change towards these magnificent creatures, farmers are occasionally opening their homes to a new domestic cat.

 

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