Cape Town, South Africa The caracal was sitting in front of us on the path and looked calm when it saw our group of three hikers panting up the lower mountainside on a warm October evening.
The Cape Town streetlights blinked below while the steep rock face of Table Mountain rose to one side. We stopped and expected the animal to retreat. Instead he trotted past us, the beam of light from our lowered headlights illuminating his burnt orange coat; round, pale eyes; and distinctive large, pointy ears with long black tufts. After a brief look back, the long-legged cat disappeared into the bushes. (Read: “Out of the Shadows, The Wildcats You’ve Never Seen Before.”)
We knew immediately it was Hermes – a human-used caracal that is often spotted by hikers and trail runners around the 61,776 hectare Table Mountain National Park, located within the city limits of the South African capital. The caracal, believed to be four to five years old, has become a figurehead for conservation in Cape Town, a town on the Cape Peninsula whose population rose from 1.1 million in 1970 to 4.7 Millions today has grown. The coastal metropolis with its mountain in the middle of the city is home to a variety of urban wild animals, from baboons to snakes to penguins.
Shy, usually nocturnal cats found in various landscapes in Africa and Asia, caracals are not critically endangered. But caracals in Cape Town are notable in another way: They are the top predators in the region, as leopards were hunted off the Cape Peninsula in the early 20th century. Native to the peninsula, caracals have recently been seen venturing into more urban areas, likely from easy-to-catch prey like southern African vlei rats and guinea fowl, Gabriella Leighton, a researcher at the University of Cape Town, tells a recent paper on the Behavior of caracals. Scientists estimate that there are likely to be around 60 caracals on the Cape Peninsula at any given time.
“They are opportunistic predators – they just take what is easiest,” says Leighton.
Hermes travels through Table Mountain National Park.
Photo by Hilton Davies
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As the distinctive 1.5-foot cats got used to people, they have been spotted in the city’s natural areas, from busy hiking trails to the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens to the popular Clifton Beach at sunset.
Many of the cats – especially those in the northern, more developed part of Table Mountain (where I met Hermes) – prefer to hunt on the outskirts, which includes suburbs, roads, and vineyards. However, this is risky as such areas pose a threat to animals, especially if they are hit by cars – the leading killer of the caracal in Cape Town. The cats are less exposed to other stresses from poisons, dog attacks and snares, says Laurel Serieys, wildlife biologist at the conservation organization Panthera, which founded the Urban Caracal Project at the University of Cape Town in 2014. Diversity is also a major threat due to the urban development that limits the animal for the future of the caracal in the city, she says.
Even so, caracals can “adapt to human activity in unexpected ways,” says Serieys, for example by adapting their behavior to avoid being seen by people in busy areas. “That was a very cool surprise.”
Research also shows that caracals from the less developed southern part of the peninsula tend to avoid outskirts, showing how their behavior changes in different environments.
So far, most Cape Towns have welcomed caracals and taken on the role of citizen scientist by reporting sightings of caracals (as well as animals killed in traffic) to the Urban Caracal Project. Although some caracals have killed domestic cats, research shows that the Cape Town caracals mostly hunt wild prey.
Lay the foundation
Before 2014, no one studied the peninsula’s caracals, says Serieys, in large part because people doubted they were there at all. She had to convince South African national parks to give her permission to study a population on Table Mountain that they believed did not exist.
Since then, Serieys and colleagues have learned more about the movements, diets, genetics, and threats of city cats. They have equipped 26 caracals with GPS collars, performed autopsies, set camera traps across town, and collected photos and videos of caracal sightings from the public. (Read more about how wild animals hack city life.)
“It’s important to just be there and see what’s there and what threats these animals are facing,” says Serieys.
So far, their results show that vehicle collisions were responsible for more than 70 percent of recorded caracal deaths between 2015 and 2020 in Cape Town. Poison is another danger: 92 percent of dead caracals tested by Serieys had consumed anticoagulant rodenticides, an exposure often fatal.
Caracals become entangled in snares that catch smaller prey or fall prey to dogs, which Serieys says can also transmit diseases like canine parvovirus.
To reduce caracal car strikes, the project team installed reflective caracal signs on seven common accident sites in Cape Town in January, although they have not yet collected data to show whether it will help reduce deaths. The team has also suggested that the city put speed limits in place at frequent caracal crossing points.
Protection of threatened penguins
Although pets make up less than four percent of the caracals’ diet, some Cape Town residents are not in their midst for the wild cats, according to a study.
Many Cape Townspeople have adapted to living with caracals by keeping their pets indoors at night or by building “catios”, enclosed spaces where cats can safely enjoy nature. Both measures are recommended by the Urban Caracal Project.
Caracals have learned to hide on the outskirts, which include suburbs, vineyards and streets.
Photo by Luke Nelson
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In some Cape Town eco-settlements – suburban settlements that market themselves as environmentally friendly – some residents have called for caracals to be removed from the area, both at neighborhood meetings and on social media.
Catching a caracal and releasing it to a new location rarely works, according to the biologists at the Urban Caracal Project, also because another caracal will most likely replace it.
This is exactly what happened in 2016 at Boulders Beach, part of Table Mountain National Park in a suburb in the south of Cape Town that is home to a colony of 2,000 to 3,000 endangered African penguins. (Learn how Africa’s only penguins face an uncertain future.)
A female caracal that found the penguin colony was captured and relocated, and she settled in an area near the release site. However, they replaced their male offspring in the colony and escaped capture for almost a year, killing an estimated 260 penguins. He was eventually relocated to a nearby open nature reserve on the bay, but within a few days he left the reserve and was hit by a car.
Fortunately, there is no evidence that caracals are actively searching for penguins, but when they pass in a colony, “it’s like a child, the one [candy] shopping, ”says Gregg Oelofse, Cape Town’s Head of Coastal Environmental Management. The city works with South African national parks on topics like caracal predation in boulders as it affects both city and parkland.
While I was waiting for Oelofse in the Boulders parking lot, I watched the penguins tinkering around vehicles, apparently unconcerned about traffic or people. Their lack of instinct for terrestrial danger – African penguins mostly live on islands – is one of the reasons the Boulders colony needs so much protection.
If a caracal breaks into the penguin colony today, it is protocol to capture and euthanize it as penguins are the top priority. However, Oelofse tells me that this is a worst-case scenario, and the focus is on prevention.
To this end, the city has installed a predator-proof fence that is fitted with rolling cylinders to make it difficult for caracals to break through. So far it has been proven to deter the experienced jumpers, he says.
Oelofse used his cell phone to show me camera trap photos that were taken along the fence: In one of them, a caracal trotted along the fence as intended, away from the coast. In another, I couldn’t even see the well-camouflaged cat until Oelofse pointed out a pair of pointed, black-tufted ears protruding into the frame.
No place to hike
As an isolated population, caracals are also threatened by their limited gene pool. Serieys has unpublished data showing that the peninsula’s 60 caracals are inbreeding – something that harms the health of local people and eventually drives them to extinction.
This is because the land around Table Mountain is so developed that most wildlife is now restricted and unable to spread out onto or away from the mountain to expand their gene pools.
The last passable corridor from Table Mountain is a narrow strip around False Bay, but it is also a potential location for housing developments.
“We want to keep these corridors and these green belts, but we also have to make concessions to allow the communities [to develop]“, Says Oelofse. It is part of the constant struggle of “trying to strike a good balance” between humans and animals.
For the rare caracal that makes it to the peninsula from outside the city, it will be “super difficult” to claim a home territory and then breed it among the already established individuals, says Serieys.
The Cape Town caracals, she says, “still have many challenges ahead of them.”