Small Cat Spotlight: Caracal

By Wai-Ming Wong, Ph.D.
Director, Small Cat Conservation Science

Caracal walking

Jumping high into the air, one of the world’s most recognizable small cat species brings down a bird in flight. It’ll make a hearty meal for a hungry caracal — a small cat certainly worthy of a spotlight. This small cat, which ranges across much of Africa and West Asia, is one of the most adept and geographically widespread small cat species in the world — which also means it comes into conflict with humans. Read all about caracal biology below.


The caracal (Caracal caracal) is one of two members of the Caracal genus, along with the African golden cat. This medium-sized, muscular cat generally has reddish-brown fur, with white fur on their chest adorned with reddish spots. Some caracals rarely exhibit melanism. Caracals have iconic, large ears that are adorned with tufts and aid in caracal-to-caracal communication. Females typically weigh approximately 20 pounds, while males typically weigh approximately 30 pounds and are roughly the size of a medium-sized dog. Overall, this cat’s nine subspecies have adapted to many different ecosystems.

Caracal staring out

Distribution and Habitat: 

Caracals are acclimated to a wide array of habitats across much of Africa and Asia, which demonstrates that these cats are truly adaptable to different landscapes and even landscape changes, such as their ability to adapt to living in proximity to urban areas. They inhabit: 

  • Arid, semi-arid and dry woodlands, 
  • Grasslands, 
  • Coastal areas, 
  • Forests,
  • Rocky, less open areas of deserts,
  • And even peri-urban environments. 

They have been recorded at high altitudes in semi-arid mountain ranges, too. Caracals are also known to inhabit evergreen and montane forests in several parts of their range. Overall, caracals range from South Africa in the south to Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia in North Africa, with significant populations in East and West Africa. In Asia, caracals are known to inhabit territories across the Middle East to central India and up to the Caspian Sea and southern Turkey.

Caracals running
©panthera/senegal dpn

Ecology and Behavior: 

Caracals have interactions typical of many species of wild cats. Though the species has large territories, males are known to fight and infanticides occur. Males and females also engage in seasonal mating, with a gestation period of roughly two months. Cubs generally leave their mothers after nine to ten months. 

Caracals are extraordinary hunters. They are well-known for their knack for hunting flying prey like birds, jumping into the air at a height of 4.5 meters to claw their prey out of the air. In addition to birds and reptiles, however, mammals make up much of caracal diets, up to nearly 95 percent in some places. Generally, caracals will prey on small mammals such as rodents and lagomorphs. However, they have been known to take down impala and even young kudu (a large antelope species) — they’ve even been known to hunt birds as large as ostriches under unique circumstances. Additionally, they hunt other carnivores like jackals and foxes — and like jackals, have been known to scavenge other animals’ kills. Caracals do not live without danger: leopards and lions have been recorded taking down this small cat species.

Caracal prowling at night

Threats and Panthera’s Work: 

While caracals are listed as Least Concern by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, they face a myriad of threats across their range. This includes habitat degradation, human-cat conflict and loss of prey. In fact, the species is rare in North and West Africa and significantly more endangered in Asia than Africa. In many places, such as South Africa, caracals are seen as pests who eat livestock, prompting retaliatory killings from farmers and locals. 

Panthera has supported the Urban Caracal Project in South Africa to protect caracals. Through this project, the Project publishes papers about exposure to ubiquitous poisons such as DDT, which also poses threats to cat populations especially in regions with higher human population densities. Panthera also recently funded work on anticoagulant rodenticides which poses threats to wild cats elsewhere, such as in California

Now that you’ve learned about caracals, check out the close cousins they diverged from eight to nine million years ago: the serval. You can take a trip to the far north and read our most recent Small Cat Spotlight on the Canada lynx! Or you can check out our full Small Cat Spotlight Collection. There’s a world of small wild cats to explore.