Two caracals in the wild.
Two caracals in the wild. Photography ©StuPorts | Getty Images.

Get to Know the Caracal

The caracal is a mid-size African wildcat with expressive ears, long legs, and a tawny or reddish coat.


Those ears! The caracal’s ears rise almost as high as he can jump. Well, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration, but they are indeed one of the defining characteristics of this mid-size African wildcat. The caracal boasts tall, triangular ears are black on the back, tipped with long black tufts of hair.

What does a caracal look like?

A caracal.
A caracal. Photography ©GlobalP | Getty Images.

Caracals have other exaggerated physical features: long legs that enable them to jump nearly 7 feet in the air to grab birds on the wing and a long tail stretching up to a foot for balance. Stiff hairs beneath paw pads offer protection while traveling over sand. The short coat is tawny or reddish.

What are some other names for the caracal?

The caracal is the largest of the small wildcats. Three subspecies exist: Caracal caracal caracal in southern and eastern Africa; C. c. nubicus in northern and western Africa; and C. c. schmitzi in the Middle East and India.

Alternate names for them include desert lynx; karakulak, a Turkish word meaning “black ears”; and, in India, harnotro, meaning “killer of blackbuck.” Like so many wildcats, caracals have adapted to a variety of habitats. Their ranges include woodlands, savannahs, semi-deserts and mountains. What they prefer, though, is dry, scrubby, open terrain with cover for hunting and shelter.

Where can you hope to see a caracal?

The solitary cats are primarily nocturnal, making it difficult for wildcat aficionados to view them, but in protected areas they may be seen during the day. Anyone hoping to see caracals while on safari should ask about the availability of night drives or whether there are areas where they are seen in daytime.

Depending on their location, the conservation status of caracals ranges from “least concern” to “critically endangered.” Threats include habitat loss, reduction in prey, conflict with farmers, attacks by dogs and capture for the international pet trade.

Thumbnail: Photography ©StuPorts | Getty Images.

About the author

Kim Campbell Thornton has written about cats and dogs for more than 30 years. She is the author of more than two dozen books and hundreds of articles on pet care, health and behavior.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in Catster magazine. Have you seen the new Catster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting area of your vet’s office? Click here to subscribe to Catster and get the bimonthly magazine delivered to your home. 

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1 thought on “Get to Know the Caracal”

  1. Of the caracal’s distinctive features, the one that immediately attracts my attention is one you didn’t mention: the black markings on the face, particularly around the mouth.

    Many drawings of cats, usually the more cartoonish ones, show cats with smiles. Look at a cat and the mouth angles down, not up. But the markings on the caracal’s face looks like a big smile, albeit a creepy, scary smile. Sorta how you’d imagine the Joker’s cat to look.

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