The Caracal, also known as the Desert Lynx, is a wild cat widely distributed across Africa, central Asia, and southwest Asia into India. In 2002, the IUCN listed the caracal as Least Concern, as it is widespread and relatively common. The felid is considered threatened in North Africa, and rare in the central Asian republics and India.
The caracal has been classified variously with Lynx and Felis in the past, but molecular evidence supports a monophyletic genus closely allied with the African golden cat and serval.
Habitat destruction due to agriculture and desertification is a significant threat in central, west, north, and northeast Africa where caracals are naturally sparsely distributed. It is also likely to be the main threat in the Asian part of its range. As caracals are capable of taking small domestic livestock, they are often subject to persecution. Severity of depredation appears to be dependent on the availability of wild prey and husbandry techniques.
The caracal is distinguished from Felis by the presence of a long tuft on the tip of the ears, exceeding half their length. No trace of pattern remains in the coat, except a few spots on the underside and inside of the fore legs. It is a slender, long-legged cat of medium size with a relatively short tail. The fur on the back and sides is generally of a uniform tawny grey or reddish, frosted-sand color. The belly and the undersides of the legs and chest are whitish and spotted or blotched with pale markings. The tufted ears are black-backed. Black caracals also occur. The skull is high and rounded. The jaw is short, stoutly built, and equipped with large, powerful teeth. About 92% of caracals lack the second upper premolar teeth. Males reach a head and body length of 75 to 105.7 cm (29.5 to 41.6 in), with a 23.1- to 34-cm-long tail, and weigh 8.0 to 20 kg (17.6 to 44.1 lb). Females are smaller with a head and body length of 69 to 102.9 cm (27.2 to 40.5 in) and a tail 19.5 to 34 cm (7.7 to 13.4 in) long. They weigh from 7.0 to 15.9 kg (15.4 to 35.1 lb).
Facial markings comprise a dark line running down the center of the forehead to near the nose, and another one running from the inner edge of the eye to the nostrils. The pupils of the eyes contract to form circles. A light-colored ring encircles the eyes, and a rather indistinct dark brown patch occurs over each eye. White patches occur on either side of the nose. The inner surface of the pinna is covered with small white hairs. Numerous stiff hairs emerge from between the pads and probably are an adaption for moving through soft sand.
Caracals are common in parts of their sub-Saharan range, especially in South Africa and southern Namibia, where they expand into new, and recolonize vacant, areas. They occur at much lower densities in Central and West Africa, where the carnivore community is more diverse. They occupy a wide variety of habitats from semidesert to relatively open savanna and scrubland to moist woodland and thicket or evergreen and montane forest such as in the Western Cape of South Africa. They prefer drier woodland and savanna regions with lower rainfall and some cover. They also occur in the Saharan mountain ranges and semiarid woodlands. On the Arabian Peninsula, caracals occur throughout the mountain ranges and hilly steppe regions, but probably do not penetrate far into the great sand deserts of the interior.
Caracals can survive without drinking for a long period—their water demand is satisfied with the body fluids of prey. They are known for their ability to capture birds by leaping 2 m (6.6 ft) or more into the air from a standing start. They hunt by stalking their prey, approaching within about 5 m (16 ft) before suddenly sprinting. They kill smaller prey with a bite to the nape of the neck, and larger animals by biting the throat and then raking with their claws. They sometimes cover larger prey if they cannot consume the whole carcass in a single meal, and return to it later. Some have even been observed to hide carcasses in trees. They live mainly on prey smaller than 5 kg (11 lb), including hyraxes, springhares, gerbils, mice, and birds. They are capable of taking antelopes, including species such as mountain reedbuck, springbok, common duiker, and steenbok. Occasionally, they tackle adult goitered gazelle.
Adult caracals are solitary, but have also been observed in pairs. They produce the usual range of sounds for cats, including growling, hissing, purring, and calling. Unusually, they also make a barking sound, which is possibly used as a warning. They scent mark their territory, leave feces in visible locations, and mark territory by spraying urine onto bushes or logs, or raking it into the ground with their hind feet.