The “Rooikat” on the Road

October 12, 2015
caracal at Gondwana

On 25 August 2015, at the crack of dawn, we were slowly driving down the meandering road that would eventually lead us to the Nauga Valley. The Fynbos vegetation was growing thick and tall on both sides of the road. Suddenly the road curved to the right and as we came around a corner we spotted this marvellous cat just a couple of metres in front of us. It was a Rooikat, also known as an African Desert Lynx (Caracal caracal). These shy creatures usually hunt at night but may still be active at dawn and dusk but their brilliant camouflage usually makes them very hard to spot.

It was lying down – motionless, on the left track of the road, staring straight at us with its shiny olive-green eyes, alert and ready to move off if we were to approach any closer. Its huge ears with those prominent black ear-tufts were zoned in on every sound that came from my vehicle.

There are several theories to try and explain the function of these fascinating ear tufts. Two of these theories are more commonly accepted. Firstly, it would seem that the black tufts break the general outline of the cat’s ears when it is stalking its prey in the tall grassland habitat where it often hunts. In other words the ear-tufts may enhance the cats camouflage while stalking its prey. Secondly, it is thought that the Rooikat use their ear-tufts for communicative purposes to signal visual messages to one another when they meet during territorial disputes. But taking into consideration that these cats are highly solitary creatures that rarely spend much time together, I personally prefer the theory concerning their camouflage in the tall grasslands. They certainly do use their ears for signalling aggressive or defensive behaviour, but in this case they use the black back side of their ears in contrast to the white hairs on the front side of their ears, and not so much the actual tufts on top of their ears.

Apart from its funky ear-tufts it was also interesting to notice its body posture when, after about three wonderful minutes of its time, the cat finally decided to move on and continue down the road on its morning patrol. Its hind legs were noticeably longer than its front legs so that its hips were actually higher than its shoulders. This is because the Rooikat have powerful muscles in their hind legs that allow them to jump two metres up with ease in order to snatch birds in flight. However, when hungry, these powerful cats are excellent hunters and usually manage to catch prey that are much larger than themselves. For example, a Rooikat that weighs almost 20 kilograms can easily overpower an adult Impala (antelope) that can weigh around 60 kilograms, which is three times the cats own weight!

Guide: Christiaan Viljoen

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