In some Cape Town eco-estates – suburban residential developments that advertise themselves as environmentally friendly – a few residents have demanded the removal of caracals from the area, both at neighborhood meetings and on social media.
According to Project Urban Caracal biologists, catching a caracal and releasing it in a new location rarely works, in part because another caracal will most likely replace it.
That’s exactly what happened in 2016 at Boulders Beach, a pocket of Table Mountain National Park in a southern Cape suburb, home to a colony of 2,000 to 3,000 endangered African penguins. (The surprising impact of the coronavirus on rhino conservation across Africa.)
A female caracal that had found the penguin colony was captured and moved, and she settled in an area near the release site. However, her male offspring then replaced her in the colony and escaped capture for almost a year, killing around 260 penguins. He was eventually transferred to a nearby open nature reserve on the bay, but a few days later he left the protected area and was hit by a car.
Fortunately, there is no evidence that caracals actively seek out penguins, but when they do occur in a colony, “it’s like a child finding a [candy] store, ”explains Gregg Oelofse, responsible for coastal environment management in Cape Town. The city is working with South Africa’s national parks on issues such as caracal predation in Boulders, as it concerns both the city and the park.
While waiting for Oelofse in the Boulders parking lot, I watched the penguins stroll around the vehicles, seemingly indifferent to traffic or humans. 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.
Nowadays, if a caracal does get into the penguin colony, the protocol is to catch it and euthanize it, as the penguins are the priority of conservation. However, this is the worst-case scenario, Oelofse tells me, and prevention is at the center of our concerns.
To this end, the city installed a predator-proof fence, topped with rolling cylinders to prevent caracals from crossing it. So far, this has been successful in deterring skilled jumpers, he says.
Using his phone, Oelofse showed me photos of camera traps taken along the fence: in one, a caracal trots along the fence away from the coast, as planned. In another, I couldn’t even see the well-camouflaged cat until Oelofse pointed out to me a pair of pointy, black tussock ears peeking out into the frame.
No place to roam
As an isolated population, caracals are also threatened by their limited genetic makeup. Serieys has unpublished data showing that the peninsula’s 60 or so caracals are inbred, reducing the health of the local population, ultimately leading them to extinction.
Indeed, the lands around Table Mountain have been developed to such an extent that most wildlife species are now restricted, no longer being able to disperse on or off the mountain to expand their gene pools.
Table Mountain’s last viable corridor is a narrow strip around False Bay, but it is also a potential site for residential development.
“We want to keep these corridors and these green belts, but we also have to make concessions to allow communities [to develop]”Says Oelofse. It’s part of the constant struggle to” try to find a good balance “between people and wildlife.
For the rare caracal arriving on the peninsula from out of town, claiming home range and then reproducing will be “super difficult” among already established individuals, Serieys says.
The Cape Town caracals, she said, “still have a lot of challenges ahead of them.”