Cape Town, South Africa The caracal sat on the trail ahead of us, looking calm as he watched our group of three hikers climb the lower slope of the mountain on a warm October evening.
Cape Town lampposts flickered below, as the sheer rock face of Table Mountain rose to one side. We stopped, waiting for the animal to retreat. Instead, he trotted right past us, the pool of light from our dimmed headlights illuminating his burnt orange coat; round, pale eyes; and distinctive large pointed ears topped with long black tufts. Pausing for a brief look back, the long-legged feline disappeared into the bushes. (Read: “Out of the shadows, the wildcats you’ve never seen.”)
We immediately knew it was Hermes, a human-habituated caracal that is often spotted by hikers and trail runners around the 61,776-acre Table Mountain National Park, which sits within the boundaries of the city of the South African capital. The caracal, believed to be four or five years old, has become something of a poster child for wildlife conservation in Cape Town, a city on the Cape Peninsula whose population has swelled from 1.1 million in 1970 to 4.7 million today. The seaside metropolis, with its mountain in the middle of the city, is home to a plethora of urban wildlife, from baboons to snakes to penguins.
Shy, usually nocturnal cats found in various African and Asian landscapes, caracals are not in danger of extinction. But Cape caracals are remarkable in another way: they are the region’s apex predator, since leopards were hunted off the Cape Peninsula in the early 20th century. Native to the peninsula, caracals have only recently been recorded venturing into more urban areas, likely attracted by easy-to-catch prey such as vlei rats and southern African guineafowl, says researcher Gabriella Leighton. the University of Cape Town who led a recent paper on caracal behavior. Scientists estimate that there are probably around 60 caracals on the Cape Peninsula at any given time.
“They are opportunistic predators, they will take whatever is easiest,” says Leighton.
As the striking 1.5-foot-tall felines have become accustomed to people, they have been spotted in natural areas around the city, from busy hiking trails at the Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden to the famous beach at Clifton at sunset.
Many cats—especially those on the more developed, northern part of Table Mountain (where I encountered Hermes)—prefer to hunt around the urban periphery, which includes suburbs, roads, and vineyards. It’s risky, however, as these areas pose a threat to animals, especially collisions with cars, the main killer of Cape caracals. Cats face other pressures, to a lesser extent, from poisons, dog attacks and snares, says Laurel Serieys, wildlife biologist at the conservation organization Panthera, who founded the Urban Caracal project. from the University of Cape Town in 2014. A lack of genetics Diversity, due to urban development squeezing the animal in, is also a major threat to the caracal’s future in the city, she says.
Even so, caracals “can adapt to human activity in unexpected ways,” says Serieys, such as adjusting their behavior to avoid being seen by people in busy areas. “It was a very good surprise.”
Research also shows that caracals in the less developed southern part of the peninsula tend to avoid urban fringes, showing how their behavior changes in different environments.
So far, most Capetonians have welcomed caracals, taking on the role of citizen scientist by reporting caracal sightings (as well as roadkill) to the Urban Caracal Project. Although some caracals have killed pet cats, research shows that Cape caracals primarily hunt wild prey.
Lay the foundation
Before 2014, no one had studied the peninsula’s caracals, Serieys says, largely because people doubted they were even there. She had to convince South African National Parks to grant her a permit to study a population they didn’t think existed on Table Mountain.
Since then, Serieys and his colleagues have learned more about the movements, diet, genetics and threats of urban cats. They fitted 26 caracals with GPS collars, performed necropsies, set up camera traps around the city, and collected photos and videos of caracal sightings from the public. (Learn more about how wild animals hack life in the city.)
“It’s important to get out into the field and learn what’s there and what the threats are to these animals,” says Serieys.
So far, their results show that vehicle collisions accounted for more than 70% of caracal deaths recorded in Cape Town between 2015 and 2020. Poison is another danger: 92% of dead caracals tested by Serieys had consumed blood-thinning rodenticides , an often lethal drug. exposure.
According to Serieys, caracals are caught in snares meant to catch smaller prey or fall victim to dogs, which can also transmit diseases such as canine parvovirus.
To reduce caracal collisions with vehicles, in January the project team installed reflective signs on caracals along seven common road kill sites in Cape Town, although they have yet to collect data. to show if it works to reduce deaths. The team also suggested that the city set up speed bumps at frequent caracal spots.
Protect endangered penguins
Although pets make up less than four percent of the caracals’ diet, some Cape Town residents are not friendly to wild cats among them, according to a study.
Many Capetonians have adapted to life with caracals by keeping their pets indoors at night or by erecting “catios”, enclosed spaces where cats can safely enjoy the outdoors. These two measures are recommended by the Urban Caracal project.
In some Cape Town eco-estates – suburban residential developments that market themselves as eco-friendly – a few residents have demanded the removal of caracals from the area, both at neighborhood meetings and on social media.
According to Urban Caracal Project 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 suburb of Cape Town, home to a colony of 2,000 to 3,000 endangered African penguins. (Find out how Africa’s only penguins are facing an uncertain future.)
A female caracal that had found the penguin colony was captured and transferred, and she settled in an area close to the release site. However, her male offspring then replaced her in the colony and evaded capture for nearly a year, killing an estimated 260 penguins. He was eventually moved to an open nature reserve near 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 occur in a colony, “it’s like a child finding a [candy] shop,” says Gregg Oelofse, Cape Town’s Coastal Environment Manager. The city is working with South African National Parks on issues such as caracal predation in Boulders, as this involves both city and park land.
While waiting for Oelofse in the Boulders parking lot, I watched the penguins tinkering 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 is so in need of protection.
Nowadays, if a caracal breaks into the penguin colony, the protocol is to catch and euthanize it, as penguins are the priority of conservation. However, this is the worst case scenario, Oelofse tells me, and prevention is the focus.
To this end, the city has installed a predator-proof fence, topped with rolling cylinders to prevent caracals from crossing it. So far it 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 shoreline, as expected. In another, I couldn’t even see the well-camouflaged cat until Oelofse pointed out a pair of pointy, black-tufted ears penetrating the frame.
No place to roam
As an isolated population, caracals are also threatened by their restricted gene pool. Serieys has unpublished data showing that the peninsula’s 60 caracals breed, reducing the health of the local population, ultimately driving 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 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 greenbelts, but we also have to make concessions to allow communities [to develop]says Oelofse. It’s part of the constant struggle to “try to strike a good balance” between people and wildlife.
For the rare caracal that arrives on the peninsula from outside the city, claiming a home range and then breeding will be “super difficult” among already established individuals, Serieys says.
The Cape caracals, she says, “still have a lot of challenges ahead of them”.