Overview

Brief Summary

Biology

Possessing tremendous speed and agility, the caracal is a formidable predator capable of tackling prey two to three times its size (4). Its long, powerful hind legs enable it to make incredible leaps up to three metres high and catch birds in flight by batting them from the air with its large paws (4) (5). In the past, this ability led to many caracals being trained to hunt game birds for the Indian royalty (4). The caracal is also the fastest cat of its size, and uses its speed to run down prey such as hyraxes, hares and small antelopes (2) (5). This species is superbly adapted for life in arid environments and requires very little water, apparently getting adequate supplies from its food (1). Caracals are usually solitary, and maintain territories which may vary between 5 and 48 square kilometres in South Africa, and up to 221 square kilometres in the Middle East. Male caracals possess the largest territories, which usually encompass the home ranges of several females. The caracal appears to breed throughout the year, although breeding is known to peak between October and February in South Africa (2). After a gestation period of around 68 to 81 days, the female may give birth to as many as six young, though three are most commonly produced (2) (4). After nine or ten months the young become independent, and may travel large distances to find their own territory. Caracals become sexually mature in their first year, and while wild individuals' lifespans are not recorded, caracals in captivity have been known to live for up to sixteen years (4).
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Description

The caracal is a slender, graceful cat with a short, dense coat and distinctive, long, black-tufted ears (2) (4). The body colour varies from reddish-brown to tawny-grey, but occasionally entirely black, “melanistic” individuals may occur (5) (6). The chin, throat and underparts are white, with pale red spots or blotches on the belly and the insides of the legs that vary from very faint to distinct in different individuals (4). Distinctive narrow black stripes run from the eye to the nose (2) and down the centre of the forehead, and the eyes are yellow-brown, with the pupil contracting to a circle rather than a slit (6). The caracal produces a range of vocalisations, including miaows, growls, hisses and coughing calls (2).
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MammalMAP: Caracal

Although the scientific name is a bit repetitive (Caracal caracal), this wide spread felid has an interesting history. The first caracal was described by a German naturalist in 1776 using a specimen found quite close to home – Table Mountain.

The name ‘caracal’ is derived from Turkish words ‘kara kulak’ which means ‘black ear’ – a characteristic feature of caracals. Caracals have tufted black ears, uniform reddish-brown fur and slender bodies. Their long legs may have a few spots. Prominent facial markings run from the inner corner of the eyes to the nose.

These solitary, nocturnal hunters have a varied diet. Feeding on small to medium sized mammals (usually rodents and small antelope), these agile felines can also jump up to 3 meters in the air to snatch flying birds. Caracals consume only meat off their prey and will seldom eat bones. These animals are adapted well for arid regions as their water demands are met by the body fluids of their prey.

Caracals mate year round and female caracals give birth to a litter of 1 – 6 kittens in caves, tree cavities or burrows. Kittens venture out of their birth den at 1 month and stay with their mother for a year when they reach sexual maturity.

The IUCN classifies caracals as a species of least concern. However, they are threatened by agriculture. Caracals are thought to opportunistically hunt livestock and are persecuted by farmers. There are however ecologically sustainable methods to deter caracals from preying on livestock. For example, using Anatolian shepherds to protect the flock of sheep.

Closing off with some more historical facts, caracals had a cultural role in the life of ancient Egyptians. Caracals were found on wall paintings, their bodies embalmed and statues of caracals and other cats guarded ancient tombs. Caracals were also used in blood sports in India where a captive caracal would be set upon a flock of pigeons and bets were made to guess how many pigeons the caracal would ground.

Want to get involved with Caracal research and conservation? Check out Cape Leopard Trust’s wishlist.

For more information on MammalMAP, visit the MammalMAP virtual museum or blog.

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Distribution

Caracal caracal is distributed over much of Africa, Central Asia and southwestern Asia. North African populations are disappearing, but caracals are still abundant in other African regions. Their range limits are the Saharan desert and the equatorial forest belt of Western and Central Africa. In South Africa and Namibia, C. caracal is so numerous that it is exterminated as a nuisance animal. Asiatic populations are less dense than those of Africa and Asiatic populations are of greater concern. The historical range of caracals mirror that of cheetahs, and both coincide with the distribution of several small desert gazelles. There is little to no distribution overlap with their allies, African golden cats. However, their other allies, servals, share a notable portion of their range with caracals. Wildcats, Felis sylvestris, specifically the subspecies Felis silvestris lybica (African wildcats) and Felis silvestris ornata (Asian wildcats), share much of their range with caracals.

Biogeographic Regions: palearctic (Native ); oriental (Native ); ethiopian (Native )

  • Breitenmoser, C., P. Henschel, E. Sogbohossou. 2008. "The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, 2008" (On-line). Caracal caracal. Accessed March 16, 2009 at http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/3847.
  • Sunquist, M., F. Sunquist. 2002. Wild Cats of the World. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
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Range Description

The caracal is widely distributed across Africa, Central Asia, and south-west Asia into India. While it is relatively common, there is concern over the status of populations on the edge of its range in the Central Asian republics and in Pakistan (Nowell and Jackson 1996). The caracal is widely distributed on the African continent, being absent only from the equatorial forest belt and from much of the central Sahara, but they are present in the montane massifs of that desert and its fringes, including the Hoggar and Tassili mountains of SE Algeria and the Saharan Atlas, the Aïr of Niger, and edges of the great sand areas of Eastern Great Erg Tun and Alg. Their range is continuous to the west and east of the central Sahara, linking the ranges to the south and north of the desert (Stuart and Stuart in press). The historical range of the caracal mirrors that of the cheetah, and both coincide with the distribution of several small desert gazelles (Sunquist and Sunquist 2002). Caracals still occupy much of their historic range in Africa but have experienced substantial loss at the peripheries, particularly in north and west Africa (Ray et al. 2005).
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Distribution in Egypt

Narrow (scattered records).

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Range

The caracal has a large range, including much of Africa, and also extending through the Arabian Peninsula and south-west and central Asia, as far as Turkmenistan and central India. Within Africa, the caracal is only absent from the central Sahara and areas of dense forest around equatorial West Africa (1) (4).
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Physical Description

Morphology

Caracals have brown to red coats, with color varying among individuals. Females are typically lighter than males. Their undersides are white and, similar to African golden cats, are adorned with many small spots. The face has black markings on the whisker pads, around the eyes, above the eyes and faintly down the center of the head and nose. The trademark features of caracals are their elongated and black-tufted ears. The legs are relatively long and the hind legs are disproportionately tall and well muscled. The tail is short. Eye color varies from golden or copper to green or grey. Melanistic individuals have been reported, but are extremely rare. Juveniles differ in their shorter ear tufts and blue tinted eyes. Subspecies of C. caracal may not be distinguishable by phenotype. Females are smaller and at or below 13 kg, while males can be up to 20 kg. It is possible for a large female to weigh more than a small male. Although the tail is short, it still makes up a significant portion of the total body length. Tail length ranges from 18 cm (7 in) to 34 cm (13 in). Head and body length is measured from the nose to the base of the tail and ranges from 62 to 91 cm (about 24 in to 36 in). Even the smallest adult caracal is larger than most domestic cats.

Range mass: 8 to 19 kg.

Range length: 80 to 125 cm.

Other Physical Features: endothermic ; homoiothermic; bilateral symmetry

Sexual Dimorphism: male larger

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Ecology

Habitat

Caracals occupy diverse habitats. Caracals are typically found in woodlands, thickets, and scrub forest, plains and rocky hills are also common habitats. They prefer edge habitats, especially forest/grassland transitions. They are found at elevations over 3000 meters in the mountains of Ethiopia. An arid climate with minimal foliage cover is preferred. Compared to servals, caracals can tolerate much drier conditions. However, they seldom inhabit deserts or tropical environments. In Asia, caracals are sometimes found in forests, which is uncommon in African populations.

Range elevation: 3,000 (high) m.

Habitat Regions: temperate ; tropical ; terrestrial

Terrestrial Biomes: savanna or grassland ; forest ; scrub forest ; mountains

  • Kingdon, J. 2004. The Kingdon Pocket Guide to African Mammals. Italy: Princeton University Press.
  • Safari Club International. 2009. "Safari Club International" (On-line). Caracal - Species Detail. Accessed March 16, 2009 at http://www.scirecordbook.org/caracal/.
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Habitat and Ecology

Habitat and Ecology
The caracal occupies a wide variety of habitats from semi-desert to relatively open savanna and scrubland to moist woodland and thicket or evergreen/montane forest (as in the Western Cape of South Africa), but favours drier woodland and savanna regions with lower rainfall and some cover (Stuart and Stuart in press). While drier open country is preferred, they are absent from true desert and are usually associated with some form of vegetative cover (Sunquist and Sunquist 2002). They range up to 2,500 m and exceptionally 3,300 m (exceptionally) in the Ethiopian Highlands (Ray et al. 2005). Caracal prey mainly on small- to medium-sized mammals, from small murids to antelope up to ~50 kg, but they will also take birds, reptiles, invertebrates, fish, and some plant matter (Stuart and Stuart in press). Like cheetahs, caracals were captured and trained to hunt for Indian royalty, but although it is capable of taking the larger ungulates it was mainly used for small game and birds (Divyabhanusinh 1995). Caracals often scavenge (Nowell and Jackson 1996).

Home ranges are large in arid areas, with the home ranges of three males averaging 316.4 km² on Namibian ranchland (Marker and Dickman 2005). In Saudi Arabia, a radio-tracked male ranged over 270 km² to 1,116 km² in different seasons (Van Heezik and Seddon 1998), while in an Israeli study, home ranges of males averaged 220.6 km² (Weisbein and Mendelssohn 1990). Male home ranges in better-watered environments of South Africa are smaller (two males averaged 26.9 km² in West Coast National Park: (Avenant and Nel 1998), and female ranges are considerably smaller than males (Stuart and Stuart in press).

Systems
  • Terrestrial
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Generally found in arid regions, the caracal occupies a range of habitats, including woodland, savanna, scrub and semi-desert (1) (2), although in North Africa, it is also found in the humid forest zone (7). Within these habitats, the caracal prefers areas with good cover from vegetation or rocks (7), and avoids open, sandy desert (2). Frequently found in mountainous areas, the caracal is generally found up to elevations of 2,500 metres, although some individuals have been recorded as high as 3,300 metres in the Ethiopian Highlands (1).
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Trophic Strategy

Similar to all other species in the family Felidae, caracals are strict carnivores. The bulk of the diet is made up of hyraxes, hares, rodents, antelopes, small monkeys, and birds. Doves and partridge in particular, are seasonally important. Mountain reedbucks, Dorcas gazelles, Kori bustards, mountain gazelles, gerenuks and Sharpe’s grysboks are specific examples of what caracals might hunt. Caracals consume some reptiles, although this is not a common component of the diet. The staple components of the diet vary with geography. For example, an individual in Africa might consume larger animals such as ungulates, while an Asian cat might consume only small vertebrates, such as rodents. Livestock are sometimes hunted as well. Although caracals are known for their spectacular, bird-snaring leaps, mammals make up over half of their diet in all ranges. Unique among cats of their size, caracals can take down prey two to three times their mass. Small prey such as hyraxes are killed with a bite to the nape, while large prey, such as gazelles are killed with a suffocating throat bite. Prey are usually stalked to within a few long bounds, then captured when the caracal leaps using its disproportionately long and muscular back legs. Perhaps a result of its opportunistic appetite, caracals may engage in surplus killing. Unlike leopards, caracals rarely hoist their kill into trees. In undisturbed environments, caracals will instead scrape earth over an unfinished carcass and continually return to feed until it is gone.

Animal Foods: birds; mammals; reptiles

Primary Diet: carnivore (Eats terrestrial vertebrates)

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Associations

Though caracals are both predators and prey, their known predators (e.g., lions and hyenas) do not regularly hunt them. The greatest impact caracals have on ecosystems is as population control for prey species. Opportunistic feeders such as caracals consume whatever is most available and whatever requires the least amount of energy to catch and kill. This method of hunting plays a role in preventing prey species from becoming under or over-populated. In some regions, caracals are one of only a few species capable of killing certain types of prey.

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Camouflage is a primary defense against predators. When threatened in their preferred, open habitats, caracals lie flat and their plain, brown coats act as instant camouflage. Agile climbing abilities also aid caracals in escaping larger predators such as lions and hyenas.

Known Predators:

Anti-predator Adaptations: cryptic

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Known prey organisms

Caracal caracal preys on:
Raphicerus sharpei
Redunca fulvorufula

This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.
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Life History and Behavior

Behavior

A thorough study of communication in caracals has never been carried out. Most of information comes from individuals kept in captivity. Like other felids, caracals have well-developed senses of hearing and sight. Although servals are noted for their incredible hearing, caracals can also detect small prey by sound alone. Once prey are detected, keen eyesight is used to narrow in on the target. The exact function of the ear tufts on C. caracal is unknown. However, some zookeepers speculate that they may be used in intraspecies communication. If this were the case, this social communication would be limited by the solitary nature of the animal. In captivity, caracals are known for their grating vocalizations. These cats communicate with a series of growls, spits, hisses and meows. Tactile communication, such as sparring and huddling, has been observed during mating periods. A potential mate is attracted by olfactory cues. Hormonal changes in the female result in a change in urine composition. When the female is ready to mate, she deposits her scent in various locations to attract males. Males may then perceive the scent through the vomeronasal organ.

Communication Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic ; chemical

Other Communication Modes: scent marks

Perception Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic ; chemical

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Life Expectancy

Reliable longevity data for wild Caracal caracal individuals has not been reported. As in other felids, captive individuals can live significantly longer than wild relatives if well cared for. Captive C. caracal can live to be around 20 years old. The maximum captive longevity reported was 20.3 years for a wild-born female raised in captivity.

Range lifespan

Status: captivity:
20.3 (high) years.

Average lifespan

Status: wild:
12.0 years.

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Lifespan, longevity, and ageing

Maximum longevity: 20.3 years (captivity) Observations: One wild born female was about 20.3 years old when she died in captivity (Richard Weigl 2005).
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Reproduction

Before mating begins, chemical signals in the female’s urine attract and notify the male of her readiness to mate. A distinctive “cough-like” mating call has also been reported as a method of attraction. There have been several different forms of mating systems observed for caracals. When a female is being courted by multiple males, the group may fight to mate with her or she may choose her mates, preferring older and larger males to younger and smaller males. Mating may occur with multiple individuals over the course of about a week. When a female chooses a mate, the pair may move together for up to four days, during which copulation occurs multiple times. Female caracals assume a lordotic position and copulation lasts for less than five minutes on average. Females almost always copulate with more than one male. Infanticide by males has been observed. This may be to induce ovulation in a female undergoing lactational amenorrhea.

Mating System: polygynandrous (promiscuous)

Although both sexes are sexually mature at 7 to 10 months, the earliest successful copulation will occur around 14 to 15 months of age. Some biologists believe that sexual maturity is indicated by a body mass of 7 to 9 kg. Females exhibit estrous behaviors for 3 to 6 days but the cycle actually lasts twice as long. A female may go into estrus at any time during the year. One hypothesis to explain the breeding habits of C. caracal is the “use” of an opportunistic strategy. This strategy is controlled by the female’s nutritional status. When a female is experiencing pinnacle nutrition (which will vary by range), she will go into estrus. This explains peak birth timing between October and February in some regions. A female cannot have more than one litter per year because of the parental investment involved and the lack of post partum estrus. Gestation lasts between 68 and 81 days, and the female will give birth to 1 to as many as 6 kittens. In the wild, generally no more than 3 kits are born, while in captivity, the number is more likely to be higher, rarely as many as 6.

Breeding interval: Caracals breed once yearly.

Breeding season: Caracals are capable of mating at any time of the year, but often do between August and December so that young are born in the summer.

Range number of offspring: 1 to 6.

Range gestation period: 68 to 81 days.

Range weaning age: 4 to 6 months.

Range time to independence: 9 to 10 months.

Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 7 to 10 months.

Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male): 7 to 10 months.

Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; year-round breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; fertilization ; viviparous

Average birth mass: 165 g.

Average number of offspring: 3.

Parental investment in caracals plays a large role in greater reproductive behavior. The time a mother spends with her kits (and the combined lack of post partum estrus) restricts females to one litter per year. Once the young are conceived, males play no role in their direct or indirect care. Females invest a great deal of time and energy into their young. A tree cavity, cave, or abandoned burrow is often chosen for parturition and the first four weeks of postnatal development. After the first month, a mother may move her young continuously. Around this time, kittens begin to play and eat meat. Nursing continues until the kittens are around 15 weeks of age, but true independence does not take place for another 5 to 6 months.

Parental Investment: altricial ; pre-fertilization (Provisioning, Protecting: Female); pre-hatching/birth (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Female); pre-weaning/fledging (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Female); pre-independence (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Female)

  • Bernard, R., C. Stuart. 1987. Reproduction of the caracal Felis caracal from the Cape Province of South Africa. South African Journal of Zoology, 22/3: 177-182.
  • Kingdon, J. 2004. The Kingdon Pocket Guide to African Mammals. Italy: Princeton University Press.
  • Sunquist, M., F. Sunquist. 2002. Wild Cats of the World. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
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Molecular Biology and Genetics

Molecular Biology

Statistics of barcoding coverage: Caracal caracal

Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLDS) Stats
Public Records: 0
Specimens with Barcodes: 1
Species With Barcodes: 1
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Conservation

Conservation Status

Primary concern for caracals is habitat loss in northern, central, and western Africa and Asia. The Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) lists Asian populations as Appendix I and all others as Appendix II. This means Asian populations may not be traded for any commercial reason, but trade involving scientific research is allowed. Appendix II dictates that trade of these animals will be controlled by authorization of permits in cases that will not detrimentally harm the species.

US Federal List: no special status

CITES: appendix i; appendix ii

State of Michigan List: no special status

IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: least concern

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IUCN Red List Assessment


Red List Category
LC
Least Concern

Red List Criteria

Version
3.1

Year Assessed
2008

Assessor/s
Breitenmoser-Wursten, C., Henschel, P. & Sogbohossou, E.

Reviewer/s
Nowell, K., Breitenmoser-Wursten, C., Breitenmoser, U. (Cat Red List Authority) & Hoffmann, M. (Global Mammal Assessment Team)

Contributor/s

Justification
Listed as Least Concern as the caracal is widespread and relatively common, particularly in southern and eastern Africa, although there have been range losses in northern Africa, and the species is of conservation concern in most of its Asian range (IUCN Cats Red List workshop, 2007).

History
  • 2002
    Least Concern
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Status in Egypt

Native, resident.

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Status

Classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed on Appendix II of CITES (Asian population listed on Appendix I) (3).
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Population

Population
In sub-Saharan Africa, the caracal is common in parts of its range, especially in South Africa and southern Namibia where it is expanding into new, and recolonizing vacant, areas; however, in central and West Africa, where they are largely absent, densities are apparently lower, possibly due to finer partitioning of resources in a more diverse carnivore community (Stuart and Stuart in press). Avenant and Nel (1998) recorded a density of 0.23-0.47 caracal/km² in the West Coast N.P. in the Western Cape of South Africa.

In its north Africa, the caracal is considered threatened (Stuart and Stuart in press), and rare in the Central Asian republics and India (Nowell and Jackson 1996).

Population Trend
Unknown
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Threats

Major Threats
As caracals are capable of taking small domestic livestock, they are often subject to persecution. Stuart (1982) recorded that over the years 1931-1952 an average of 2,219 caracals per year were killed in control operations in the Karoo, South Africa. Similarly, Namibian farmers responding to a government questionnaire reported killing up to 2,800 caracals in 1981 (Nowell and Jackson 1996). Brand (1989) found that caracals were responsible for the loss of up to 5.3 domestic stock per 100 km² per annum in the former Cape Province of South Africa. Severity of depredation appears to be dependent on the availability of wild prey and husbandry techniques (Stuart and Stuart in press).

Habitat destruction (agriculture and desertification) is a significant threat in central, west, north and northeast Africa where caracals are naturally sparsely distributed (Ray et al. 2005). It is also likely to be the main threat in the Asian part of its range (Sunquist and Sunquist 2002).
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Despite its widespread distribution and relatively large overall population, in certain parts of its range, the caracal is considered rare and threatened. In North Africa, Arabia, Asia and India, habitat loss is posing a significant threat to the caracal's survival (1) (4). This is especially true of the Indian population, which having previously suffered heavy losses from fur trappers, is now close to extinction (4). In southern Africa, where the caracal is common, it is heavily persecuted as a pest due to its habit of preying on livestock. Nevertheless, despite large numbers being killed, the population does not appear to be suffering (1) (4).
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Management

Conservation Actions

Conservation Actions
Populations in Asian range states are included in CITES Appendix I; populations in African range states are included on Appendix II. Hunting of the species is prohibited in Afghanistan, Algeria, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Lebanon, Morocco, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan (updated from Nowell and Jackson 1996). In sub-Saharan Africa, the caracal is protected from hunting in about half of its range states (Nowell and Jackson 1996). In Namibia and South Africa, the caracal is classified as a Problem Animal, which permits landowners to kill the species without restriction; nonetheless, caracal have persisted and remain widespread.

Caracal are present in many large, and well-managed protected areas, across their vast range.
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Conservation

Although caracal hunting is still legal in some parts of its range, in India, much of sub-Saharan Africa, and many south-west and central Asian countries, it is prohibited (7). Furthermore, the Asian caracal population is listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), making all international trade in this species illegal (3). The presence of the caracal in numerous, large and well-managed protected areas throughout its range is helping to safeguard populations against habitat loss (1). This has been particularly beneficial in India, where areas set aside for tiger conservation are now also forming vital refuges for the caracal's endangered population. With these measures in place the future of this remarkable cat looks optimistic (8).
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Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems

Benefits

Predation on small livestock has resulted in extermination of thousands of caracals annually. This is especially the case in South Africa and Namibia, where predator control programs have been put in place. Even with various programs in place, caracals quickly recolonize farmland.

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In India and Persia, caracals were once trained to catch game birds and deer. By doing so, caracals provided both food and entertainment. Bushmeat and pelts in western and central Africa provide food and minor profit for locals. Luckily for caracals, their plain pelt is in very low demand.

Positive Impacts: pet trade ; body parts are source of valuable material

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