Caracal close encounter ‘the best gift ever’
“My instinct was that I was seeing a wild animal, but I did a ‘double take’ as I know wild animals usually run away from people and dogs,” says Barnett. “The dogs were closest to it, but had walked right past it with my husband and daughter. I then realised it was a caracal, and stopped to take a photo. He came round a bush, walking casually, and sat down three metres in front of me. He stayed there for about 15 minutes. It was a very spiritual moment. He looked at me, licked his lips, yawned, and blinked. It felt like he gave me permission to be there.”
A caracal, also known as a rooikat, is a medium-sized wild cat, native to Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, and India. It’s relatively rare to see one in the Cape, especially up close, during the day, and for more than an instant. The spot where Barnett encountered this caracal is next to the busy road entering Camps Bay, which has mountain and a forested area on either side.
“The only time it reacted with a hiss, arching his back and baring his teeth, was when it caught sight of my dogs, but it then settled down again. Other people came past, and I told them there was a caracal ahead, and he didn’t flinch. His ears twitched, and you could see he was listening to everything, but he wasn’t bothered that there were people near him.
“I wasn’t scared, and nothing in his body language showed that he felt threatened. He exuded a sense of confidence and belonging. He eventually walked back down into the brush, looking back at us and the mountain three times.”
Barnett called the encounter “the best gift ever”. She has a life-long love affair with animals, and majored in zoology during her undergraduate degree at the University of Cape Town. She once dreamed of becoming a game ranger, and still hopes to fulfil that wish.
“I’m always on the lookout for wildlife whether driving or hiking, and always with my phone to snap interesting creatures I see,” she says. She had to cancel two trips to the bush because of the lockdown, but her encounter with the caracal made up for some of that disappointment.
Barnett reported her sighting to the Urban Caracal Project, which tracks caracals in the Cape, and aims to learn how they are adapting to human-dominated landscapes. She has since found out that this particular caracal has been named Hermes by the project, and will continue to follow his story.
“The Cape Peninsula is a biodiversity hotspot that has lost almost all its large mammals. Caracals may play a vital role in maintaining ecosystem balance since they are the largest remaining predator in the area,” says the project’s founder, Dr Laurel Serieys.
Speaking to the SA Jewish Report, Serieys says, “We estimate that there are perhaps 50 caracals in the peninsula at any given time, which isn’t a lot considering that they are completely isolated. That means that there are no caracals moving in and out of the Cape Peninsula bringing new genetic material with them. So, for decades, the caracals have existed in a closed population with relatively few individuals. The consequence is that there has been a lot of inbreeding and reduced genetic variation, which is problematic for the population.”
She says Hermes is sighted quite often. “He covers a large area of about 70 square kilometres. Hermes is particularly interesting because he has been hit by a car at least twice, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at him.
“He was about one to two years old when he was hit by a car, so now he is about four years old. That’s relatively old for an urban caracal. He’s in really good condition, but based on X-rays, he has had a really bad break to one of his hind legs, and that leg is now slightly shorter than the other. It doesn’t seem to slow him down though.”
Asked if it’s unusual that he was so low down the mountain and next to a busy road, she says, “It’s perhaps a little unusual, but we have had similar reports elsewhere, and not during lockdown. Some caracals are more habituated to human activity and let themselves be seen. Hermes is certainly one of the more habituated caracals we’ve observed – he’s seen at least on a weekly basis. A lot of people want to credit wildlife reclaiming cities during lockdown, but I don’t think that’s necessarily happening with local caracals.”
If you encounter a caracal, “Give them space, and keep dogs on leash! Caracals are frightened of dogs, but if a caracal were cornered by one and didn’t have a way to escape, it would defend itself,” she says.
Serieys emphasises that caracals aren’t a threat to people or children. “They are very timid animals. The risk is if they are cornered and feel their life is threatened, but whatever their response, it would be out of fear.
“It’s true that caracals prey on domestic cats, although we have done a diet study and found that domestic cats are only about 5% of the caracal diet. Most often, they eat rats, guinea fowl, Egyptian geese, dassies, and cormorants. The best advice we have is to keep domestic cats inside, especially at night.
“I would also add that life in urban areas is hard for caracals. We find that they are regularly hit by cars. We’ve documented more than 60 caracals killed after being hit by cars in the Cape Town area just since 2015. Caracals are also poisoned by household rat poison.”
If you do spot a caracal in the Cape, Serieys recommends that you “take a minute to feel blessed by the sighting, and enjoy it!”