12 July 2014

Killer Caracal

I've recently been fortunate enough to capture three incidents of predation by Caracal at Koeberg Nature Reserve.

Like many members of the cat family, the Caracal is an obligate carnivore, and thus completely dependant on killing other animals for its survival. The Caracal might be restricted to only eating meat, but the source of meat can be very wide.

My previous post Going Nuclear showed a Caracal stalking a Cape Gerbil. More recently my camera traps captured two incidents that illustrates the wide range of animals the Caracal can and will kill for food.

The camera trap photograph below shows that Caracal will kill and feed on animals as small as lizards (at least I think it's a lizard).

Caracal (Rooikat - Caracal caracal) carrying a dead lizard in its mouth

This photograph was taken by my trusty old Bushnell Trophy Cam which I got in 2009 (you can find the original blog post over here). I'm amazed that the camera is still working after all it has been through. Maybe when I finally retire it I'll do a post with some highlights from its years of service. The day might be close at hand. It recently had some problems with the LCD display and the IR filter seems to be giving problems too, resulting in the day time photographs turning out like the one above (with a weird magenta tint and lots of overexposing). But at least it is still working, and without it I would never had gotten this cool photo.

So, to get back on track, we now know that Caracal will eat small animals such as lizards and rodents, but just how big an animal will they kill? Most people, especially farmers, will know that they are frequently responsible for killing livestock, lambs and adult sheep in particular. Luckily there aren't any domestic animals at Koeberg and no animal husbandry in the surrounding area that I'm aware off, so these felines are relatively safe from hunting and poisoning.

The Caracal at Koeberg, however, have taken to killing Springbok. I'm sure they also hunt the Steenbok and Duiker on the reserve, but the Springbok tend to hang around in the same area as the office buildings and this makes the killings more noticeable by staff and visitors.

After a meeting with the reserve manager she informed me of a Springbok that was killed the night before. The carcass was close by, however by the time I got to the kill site the carcass was gone. The Caracal wasn't in the area anymore and I spent quite a while searching the area until I finally found the carcass hidden deep inside one of the bushes.

According to the staff the carcass was still out in the open when they arrived at work in the morning. The Caracal must have dragged it quite a distance to hide it in the large bushes.

Half eaten Springbok carcass pulled deep inside a bush by the Caracal

About half of the carcass has been consumed the night before. Interestingly it was covered by grass. I can't see how the Caracal could have kicked or pulled the grass over the carcass. The carcass was too deep into the dense bush. The animal must have climbed out of the bush, pulled out some grass (with it's mouth?) and carrier it back to the carcass. It did a very good job at hiding it.

The lower half of the body was completely covered by grass, only one leg was sticking out

The Caracal is the top predator in the reserve and it can't be afraid of some bigger animal stealing the prey, so why go through all this trouble? I'm guessing that it reduces the amount of flies that gets attracted to the carcass during the day. It also hides it from the crows which would definitely feast on it if they found it. There are also no vultures (anymore) in this part of the country for it to worry about.

I was curious to see what will happen with the carcass and decided to place my other (newer) Bushnell Trophy Cam pointed at the bush with the carcass inside.

The Springbok carcass is in the huge bush to the left and the camera trap is on the right

The Caracal returned to the kill just before sunset, still looking stuffed from the previous night's feasting.

Look at that huge belly

But then I noticed something interesting. There wasn't only one Caracal, there were two! I'm so used to only photographing one Caracal at a time, that this was a bit of a surprise to me.

Two Caracal sharing the feast

Not only were they both feeding on the Springbok carcass, but they seemed to get along very well and appeared to be very relaxed in each other's company.

The one animal seems to be larger than the other. My guess would be that this is a male and female. The territories of Caracal males are know to overlap with many females. In general Caracal don't appear to be very territorial and can live in fairly high concentrations if there is enough food. Large parts of their home ranges can overlap with those of other Caracal, especially those of the other sex.

This photograph gives some idea of the size difference between the two

The kill was close to the office buildings and the staff know these two animals well. I sent the above photograph to the reserve manger and she said that they have known about the two Caracal being seen together for over two years. This is also not the first Springbok to fall victim to this due.

This made me wonder whether these two only team up when hunting large animals, or whether they are always seen together.

I've noticed before that the marking on the inside of the front paws can be used (to some extent) to tell individuals apart, so I fired up WildLog and went through the Caracal sightings I've recorded at Koeberg.

From my quick analysis I noticed that the same animals have been photographed a couple of times in the general area. In fact the Caracal hunting the Cape Gerbil was photographed only 1km away and seems to be one of these two. However, they were never together, so I guess it is safe to assume they only team up when they hunt larger animals.

The Caracal photos I captured in the other parts of the reserve were of other individuals. For these two I guess that the area around the office buildings is the core of their range.

Caracal behaving like a true feline

I have no idea how they got the carcass in there and there surely wasn't enough room in the bush for both of them. The one animal would often hang around just outside the bush, often grooming itself, while the other one feeds.

The feeding continued through the night, with only one brave Porcupine walking past (around midnight). There was no action of any kind during the next day. The first photo captured by the camera trap the next day was the Caracal returning to the carcass, again just before sunset for their third, and last, night of feasting.

The next morning a brave Cape Francolin was the first to brave the scene and resume normal activities. The other animals followed shortly afterward and soon a steady flow of traffic resumed.

Cape Francolin (Kaapse Fisant - Pternistes capensis) making sure it is safe

Over the next two weeks a total of 12 species was photographed walking past the camera trap. Neither of the Caracal returned again to feed on the carcass and the other animals didn't pay the bush any notice. One Caracal walked past the camera 6 days later and another the day after.

We are still fortunate enough to have a good many Caracal in the Western Cape, despite severe persecution by farmers (of small livestock).

Caracal can be found throughout most of Africa and parts of the Middle East, all the way to India, but are most common and at home in southern Africa.

They seem very at home in the landscape around Cape Town, and I found it fitting to learn that this area is also the place from where the type specimen was collected and first described (to modern science) in 1776 by Schreber. Below is the illustration from his book Die Saugthiere in Abbildungen nach der Natur mit Beschreibungen.

Caracal illustration from Schreber's book. Is that Table Mountain in the background?
(The image is from over here)