The caracal's most distinctive feature is its long black ear tuft, hence another common name, desert lynx. The back of the ear is also black. Considered the largest of the "small" cats in Africa, male caracals in South Africa weigh as much as 40 pounds (18 kilograms). Females are slightly smaller and weigh less than 35 pounds (16 kilograms). In Africa, caracals are tawny brown to brick red in color; melanistic (black) individuals have also been recorded. In Asia, populations in Israel are paler in color, with five to ten percent of the population being a dark gray in color. They are also smaller than African caracals. In Israel, male caracals weigh only 20 pounds (9.8 kilograms). Females are noticeably smaller and average only 12 pounds (6.2 kilograms). Despite the pronounced ear tuft, caracals are not closely related to the lynx, Lynx sp.
Caracals live throughout most of Africa except Central Africa and coastal portions of West Africa. Overall, their population levels are satisfactory. Caracals are most abundant in Namibia and South Africa, possibly because of local extirpation of black-backed jackals by farmers. In Ethiopia, they range up to 8,200 feet (2,500 meters), and as high as 10,827 feet (3,300 meters) in the Bale and Simien Mountains. Elsewhere in Africa and Asia, caracals are widely distributed, absent only from true desert. Caracals are rare in India. In Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan, cold winters limit northern expansion. See range map
In sub-Saharan Africa, caracals prefer drier savanna and woodland regions, with a strong preference for the scrubby, arid habitats. In southern Africa, they often live in rocky terrain because of an abundance of prey (hyraxes and red rock rabbits). They don't live in tropical rain forests. In North Africa, they are common in the humid forest zone of the northern coastal regions and in the Saharan mountain ranges.
Caracals feed primarily on small antelopes and gazelles, hares, and small rodents. Depending on availability and habitat, hyraxes, livestock, reptiles, and carrion may also play an important role in their diet. In South Africa and Namibia, caracals are considered a significant predator of sheep. Because of their exceptional leaping ability, birds play an important role in their diet in some parts of their range. Caracals leap high into the air and knock birds down with their front paws.
Like most other small cats, caracals are solitary predators, coming together only to breed. During other parts of the year, caracals maintain exclusive territories that preclude entry by members of the same sex. In sub-Saharan Africa, caracals appear to breed year around, giving birth to anywhere from one to four cubs, though two cubs are most typical. Gestation lasts 78 to 81 days. Males are sexually mature at 12 to 15 months, and females are sexually mature at 14 to 16 months. Populations in northern Africa and Asia appear to breed seasonally, with young born primarily in April and May. They are thought to breed once a year.
In South Africa and Namibia, farmers often kill caracals, whom they suspect of killing small livestock. Analysis of stomach contacts suggest that small livestock do make up a significant portion of the caracal's diet, with estimates ranging from 17 to 55 percent in various areas. As a result, several thousand caracals are killed annually in parts of southern Africa. Control efforts thus far appear to have little effort on caracal populations and they typically re-colonize farming areas following local extirpation. In West and Central Africa, hunting caracals for their skins and bushmeat is reported to be a threat because there are fewer of them. In Asia, caracals pose less of a problem to farmers, taking livestock only in winter when natural prey is scarce. In the absence of heavy persecution, caracals adapt well to living in settled areas of this region.
Caracals were listed as Least Concern on the 2008 IUCN Red List. CITES lists all populations in Asia (two subspecies) on Appendix I. All other populations are listed on Appendix II. None are listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
An international studbook and Population Management Plan is supported at The Living Desert. This species is easily maintained by zoos and private individuals. The goal of the AZA Felid TAG is to reduce the captive population to 75 individuals. Although Asian caracals are rarer in the wild, no Asian caracals are thought to be present in North America.
Caracals have not been well studied except for those populations in South Africa and Israel. In most countries, they have very little legal protection, and in South Africa and Namibia, they continue to be heavily persecuted. Because of their wide range and relative abundance, little focus has been given to this species.