The Cape Town caracals are making stealthy strides not only near the city but also onto the pages of publications like National Geographic.
In a recent feature, National Geographic’s Heather Richardson documented an encounter with Hermes, the Cape Town caracal, who has become quite famous for his guest appearances that hikers, trail runners and accidental photographers alike have been fortunate enough to encounter.
As Richardson writes, the four to five-year-old cat has “become something of a poster animal for wildlife conservation in Cape Town,” describing him to have a “burnt-orange coat, round, pale eyes, and distinctive large, pointed ears topped with long black tufts,” before disappearing back into the veld in the Table Mountain National Park area where our city’s streetlights blinked below.
The mention of something so urban as streetlights is key here, as Richardson is drawing to our attention how close the caracals are starting to get to urban life – something UCT’s Urban Caracal Project has been raising awareness toward since 2014.
The reason Hermes, and other documented caracals that the Urban Caracal Project has proudly featured in their work, is because these are caracals habituated to humans.
Before 2014, as Laurel Serieys, a wildlife biologist who founded the Urban Caracal Project notes, no one was even sure that there were caracals in the Cape Peninsula. 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, as Richardson records.
This year alone, caracals have been seen all over, from Lion’s Head to Camps Bay Beach and the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens where two kittens melted Capetonians hearts.
There are roughly only 60 caracals in the peninsula, and it seems like they are all in the process of adapting to urban experience.
This is precisely why we need to be so careful with them. Caracals are not in danger of extinction, as Richardson expresses, but nonetheless, there are dangers that face the cats of which they are not accustomed to.
A massive cause for mortality are none other than collisions with cars. The Urban Caracal Project has attempted to alleviate this by designing illuminated caracal road signs.
Additionally, poison, dog attacks and snares are also threats that the stealthy kin face, alongside the dangers of urban life.
Some of our urban areas have demanded the removal of caracals from the area, instead of opting to adapt with them.
Simple relocation, as the Urban Caracal project notes, isn’t always successful as another caracal is likely to pop-up in the same area as was the case for Boulders Beach in 2016 in plight of the penguins. As Richardson notes in speaking to the head of coastal environmental management, Gregg Oelofse, caracals don’t actively seek out penguins per se, but if they do come across them, they may indulge.
The protocol for such a situation is to catch and euthanise the cats according to Oelofse.
Another issue for the cats is space. Table Mountain has become quite developed and not entirely apt for wildlife. As a result, the cats don’t have enough room to “widen their gene pool” which causes inbreeding and impacts their health.
Beyond the challenges, however, the cats do appear to be adapting to human activity in ways unexpected, according to Serieys. One case is their stealthy manner of avoiding being seen by humans in congested areas. “That was a very cool surprise,” the researcher expresses.
Picture: Jay Caboz