Range:

Africa and the Middle East to India

Habitat:

Savanna, semi-desert, dry woodland, arid hilly steppe, and dry mountains

Big cat, small cat

With their sleek, streamlined body, short, reddish gold coat, and dramatic markings on the face, caracals are among the most beautiful of wild cats. Also called the desert lynx, medium-sized caracals have no spots or stripes and have longer legs and a slimmer body than a true lynx. Caracals are the heaviest and also the fastest of the small cats and are the largest of the small cats in Africa.

All in the family

The caracal’s place in the cat family tree is somewhat muddled, but it is believed that it is closely related to the serval and golden cat. The caracal is found in habitats that are different from its feline cousins. Servals and caracals are similar in size, but servals hunt in wetter habitats, whereas caracals stick to the drier areas of Africa and the Middle East.

Like all cats, each caracal’s whiskers are attached in a unique pattern, similar to a fingerprint.
Both caracals and cheetahs have been trained to stalk and capture prey for their human counterparts.
The word caracal is from a Turkish word that means “black-eared.”

The San Diego Zoo’s first caracal pair arrived in 1963. We’ve had several more since then, including 19 births.

Today, the Zoo has a female caracal in Africa Rocks, and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park has a caracal named Kasten who is trained as an animal ambassador, meeting guests up close and making television appearances. With the assistance of his trainers, Kasten has been interacting with and educating the public since 2002; he is known by many for his incredible acrobatics and seems to enjoy demonstrating his predatory instinct and amazing jumping abilities by stalking and then leaping to catch a stuffed toy on a lure as if it were live prey.

Despite their secretive habits, caracals have been a part of humans’ lives for hundreds of years. In India and Persia (now known as Iran), they were used to hunt birds for sport. Owners would have contests to see how many pigeons their cat could bring down in a single try, often reaching 10 or more! The saying “to put a cat among the pigeons” comes from this ancient practice.

In some areas these days, however, caracals are considered pests. During lean times, caracals hunt livestock as an easy source of food. For this reason, many ranchers shoot a caracal if they see one. However, caracals also keep down the numbers of small herbivores that compete with the livestock for grazing areas.

Unfortunately, most of the Asian caracal populations are dropping rapidly, and new ways need to be found for humans to live with this stealthy cat.

You can help us bring small cats back from the brink by supporting the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy. Together we can save and protect wildlife around the globe.