Monday, 5 September 2011

Caracal vs Leopard

The Cape Mountain Leopard (Panthera pardus pardus) represents the southern-most population of leopards in Africa. It is considered a distinct population as males have an average body weight of 30.1 kg and females of 21.2 kg, which is considerably smaller than leopard populations elsewhere in Africa (Savanna leopard males can weigh up to 90kg and females 60kg). The Cape Mountain Leopard occupy massive home ranges (235-600 km sq) and occur at low densities – the 200,000ha Baviaanskloof is estimated to hold 30 leopards, i.e. 1 leopard per 66 square kilometers.

Caracal - cut from a camera trap photo on the reserve
The Caracal (Caracal caracal) is a slender, yet muscular, cat, with long legs and a short tail. Males typically weigh 13 to 18 kilograms, while females weigh about 11 kilograms. The word Caracal comes from the Turkish word "karakulak", meaning "black ear". The Caracal resembles a Eurasian Lynx, but is unrelated. The Caracal is 65 to 90 centimetres in length. However, those numbers are often hard to build a mental picture with, so I have assembled these comparative pictures with other wildlife from Blue Hill Nature Reserve.


Grey (Common) Duiker - females weigh from 16 - 21 kg and are larger than the males

Cape Grysbok - from 8 - 12 kg

Honey Badger


The Caracal is a reddish-brown colour, leading to the Afrikaans name 'Rooikat' or Red Cat. Rooikat are considered vermin by local farmers as they prey on goats and lambs. Last month 3 lambs were killed by Caracal on a neighbouring farm. At a farmer meeting we attended in August we also learnt that the farmers union, Agri Western Cape, had declared a motion of no-confidence in the management of Cape Nature (responsible for most protected areas here) due to their lack of action over the problem species baboon, bushpig, rooikat and jackal. The local Farmer's Weekly magazine states that 6400 head of livestock are lost a day across South Africa due to problem animals. They think the problem is worsening as there are fewer farmers on the land and so fewer people to control problem animals.

Female Caracal inhabit relatively small home ranges, varying from 5 to 57 square kilometres, depending on the local availability of prey. While the females actively defend their territory against other females, the males roam over much larger areas of 19 to 220 square kilometres with considerable overlap. It is known for its spectacular skill at hunting birds, able to snatch a bird in flight as it can jump and climb exceptionally well. This also enables it to catch Rock Hyraxes (dassies) better than probably any other carnivore. This would make it a direct competitor of the Cape Mountain Leopard, where dassies can account for 64% of their diet.

As the apex predator in the Western Cape region, the Cape Mountain Leopard is expected to experience little direct and indirect competition from other predators – lion and spotted hyaena are extinct in the area. The Black-backed Jackal and Caracal are the only relatively large carnivores that may be considered competition. However, it is thought their smaller body size in comparison to the Cape Leopard reduces their direct competitiveness. Leopards tend to occupy higher altitudes (> 600 m asl) in mountain fynbos vegetation, whereas Caracals reside in transitional habitat at lower altitudes (< 600 m asl).

Is this purely habitat preference or do leopard actively chase Caracal from their territories? This is a fact that is used by conservationists to stop leopard persecution i.e. if you have a leopard (which are less of a problem animal – only up to 2% of scat contain livestock) on your land you are less likely to have Caracal or Jackal.

Up until recently, we would have said this was true as we recorded leopard on our property, but never Jackal or Caracal. However, as of July we have obtained several Caracal photos, including this interesting sequence of a Caracal and Leopard at the same spot only 20 minutes apart. The leopard is the resident male – Butch – who is rarely on the property. He has been absent several months now, so will his return mean the Caracal will disappear? We wait eagerly for the end of this month where the next download from our camera traps may paint a clearer picture.

Caracal - note the time stamps between these photos

Cape Mountain Leopard - Butch

This article contains information from the respective species accounts on Wikipedia, as well as information available from the publications on the Cape Leopard Trust website.

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