Did you know?
The tassles on a caracal’s ears help it to hear better.
The caracal, the closest African equivalent to a lynx, is the largest of the ‘small cats’ found in South Africa.
With its black, tasselled ears, short tail, red fur and big feet, it is a formidable and athletic hunter.
It is also quite beautiful, with dark marks around its eyes and white highlights. The tufted ears are diagnostic – no other cat in Africa has them.
Unfortunately, livestock farmers generally overlook its good looks because the caracal (also called the rooikat, or 'red cat') kills their goats and sheep without a qualm. Yet experts have noted that it prefers not to eat too much fatty mutton or lamb if there is other, leaner fare available.
All agree, though, that it’s a cat that punches way above its weight. Its high hindquarters give it a huge advantage when jumping and climbing, and it is the scourge of dassie (rock rabbit) populations.
A caracal also won’t hesitate to down a far larger adult impala, a kudu calf or even an ostrich. Mostly, though, it will go for springbok, steenbok, monkeys, springhares, rodents and mongooses.
It has even been known to knock a martial eagle from its perch, kill it and eat it. What other cat would dare?
It will also bat birds from the air with lightning fast blows.
This mostly nocturnal prowler is sometimes seen in the early morning or late afternoon.
It is one of the most adaptable animals and occurs over most of the country. The only area it avoids is the Richtersveld in the north-western corner of South Africa.
A good potential place to see it is the Mountain Zebra National Park, although you could be lucky enough to see one in most national parks and nature reserves, or while on a farm stay.
But if your luck fails and you’re determined to see this beautiful feline, visit the Cat Conservation Trust 20 minutes out of the Karoo town of Cradock (not far from the Mountain Zebra National Park).
Travel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
How to get here
Your best chance to see a caracal is at the Mountain Zebra National Park, or at the nearby highly regarded breeding and research centre, the Cat Conservation Trust. Both are close to Cradock in the Eastern Cape. Cradock is about 200km north of Port Elizabeth, along the N10. Drive through Cradock as if heading onwards to Middelburg, and turn onto the R61 towards Graaff-Reinet. After a few minutes you’ll see the Mountain Zebra National Park entrance. If you’re headed to Cat Conservation Trust, carry on straight. After about 15 minutes, turn right onto the Fish River road and turn in at the Clifton farm, which is clearly signposted.
Best time to visit
In game reserves, the best way to see nocturnal animals (apart from with a spotlight at night) is to look out for them very early on winter mornings (from May to August), when they may still be out foraging.
Tours to do
The Mountain Zebra National Park, like most national parks, offers excellent night drives.
What will it cost
A tour around the Cat Conservation Trust will cost approx R25 per person (accommodation costs between R260 per person and R490, depending on meal requirements).
Length of stay
A visit to the Cat Conservation Trust makes a good half-day trip. If you’re hoping to see these cats in the wild, you may be lucky or not. Many regular reserve visitors have never seen 1. Others see 1 on their 1st night.
What to pack
Unless you’re visiting the Cat Conservation Trust, bring very warm winter gear, especially in winter (May to August) since you’ll be looking for them at night. Even summer nights on the back of a Landrover can be cold.
Where to stay
The Cat Conservation Trust has simple but comfortable accommodation. You may also see caracals at the Mountain Zebra National Park, which is close to the trust and Cradock. It has good self-catering accommodation.