Caracals are very striking cats. They have short, reddish-brown fur on their back and flanks, which is set off by the white fur on the chin, throat and belly. Most notably, long tufts of black fur top the caracal's ears, which are long and slender. Many people confuse them with members of the lynx family because of their ear tufts.
From head to tail, the caracal measures 33 to 48 inches (83 to 123 centimeters) including their tail. They are the heaviest of the small African cats weighing from 25 to 40 pounds (9.5 to 18 kilograms) Males are generally larger than females.
Caracals are found in most regions of Africa and from the Arabian Peninsula through northwest India. Caracals are at home in a number of habitats. They live in woodlands, savannahs and in scrub forests, but avoid sandy deserts. In southern Africa, they usually live in upland areas. Caracals typically use abandoned porcupine burrows and rock crevices for maternal dens, but can be found with their young in dense vegetation. Although mainly terrestrial, they are excellent jumpers and climbers.
Caracals are strictly carnivorous. They prey primarily on birds, rodents and small antelopes. Like most cats, caracals stalk their prey before pouncing on it. In areas of human settlement, these cats sometimes eat poultry. Caracals sometimes store the remains of their prey in the forks of trees or in dense bushes, later returning for further feeding.
They are supremely acrobatic and can leap agilely into the air to bring down prey, such as guinea fowl, on the wing.
At the Smithsonian's National Zoo, each caracal receives Natural Balance ground beef mixed with dry cat kibble. They also receive mice, smelts, beef femurs and rabbits alternating daily. Keepers will occasionally hang some of their diet or enrichment items on the bungee in the yard to enable the caracals to exhibit their natural jumping abilities. They are also skilled at catching birds, squirrels and chipmunks that enter their enclosure!
Caracals appear capable of breeding year round. After a gestation of 69 to 78 days, a female gives birth to one to six kittens, with an average litter size of three. Young nurse for 10 to 25 weeks.
Caracals are mainly active at twilight, but will hunt at night, in hot weather, and during the day in winter.
Caracals live approximately 12 years in the wild and 17 years in human care.
Although currently not threatened, their populations are decreasing. Poultry farmers are not fond of caracals. Caracals' skill at jumping and climbing enables them to exploit poultry as a staple food despite the fences farmers have erected. In Iran and India, caracals have been tamed and used to help hunters.