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  • Writer's pictureKev Thomas Writes

Baying The red Cat

Updated: Dec 5, 2023

 Mid-winter Eastern Cape mornings are cold. A cold  further enhanced by vehicle movement in the pre-dawn light, as we negotiate the backroads of outlying farms. In the truck’s load bay our hounds stand bunched. Legs braced against the jolting. Faces eager with anticipation as they look out into the passing bush. Nostrils testing the air, brains computing a multitude of scents. When the tailgate eventually gets dropped at the hunt venue, a blur of white, black, and orange, hits the ground running. Tails whipping, noses down seeking any lingering feline scent which may still be clinging to the early morning dew dampened grass. 


Caracals, also called African lynx, are wily adversaries and make for a worthy and challenging trophy. Little compares to the company of twelve eager hounds in the chill early morning air. The sun, a fiery red orb still rising above the horizon far out over the Indian Ocean. Alongside the vehicle, warm hound breath and floppy ears, with perhaps periodic visits back to the hunters by one or two hounds, whilst the search for scent goes on. A canine way of saying, ‘Relax guys, we’ll find this cat because we enjoy the chase just as much as you.’


Hounds have an uncanny way of sharing their enthusiasm for the hunt. It’s catching and like all dogs, they want to please. As we stand blowing into cupped palms and stomping our feet in the cold, the hounds cast wide for scent, and in next to no time they are way below us in a valley. Running with them was Xhosa ‘houndsman’ Tim Mbambosi. Every now and then his voice carried up to us, loudly chivvying, and encouraging his pack. It adds to the sense of anticipation, as do the odd excited barks and yowls emanating from the dark woods below us. We can’t see the hounds, aside from the odd glimpse of blurry white as one breaks from cover, lingers ever so briefly, testing a scent perhaps, before darting back under the dune forest canopy paralleling the Indian Ocean. In the background waves crash onto the beach, the roar of the ocean a constant.


Caracal, are not related to the North American or European lynx. This name error no doubt comes from the pointed tufted ears as are also found in the American and European lynx. The word caracal however, comes from the Turkish word karakulak which means ‘black ear,’ after the prominent black tufts on the ear tips. In the South African Afrikaans language, the caracal is descriptively called a ‘rooikat’ (red cat) due to their brick red colour, although they also tend towards a tawny brown. Height at shoulder is about 40 – 45cm with a mature male’s average weight being 13 to 20kg. The smaller female weighs about 10kg. Largely a nocturnal hunter, caracal prefer Africa’s drier arid scrub covered regions. They can also be found in montane and evergreen forest, although not in tropical rain forest.

They are courageous and combative cats. And are on record as having killed adult springbok (40kg) and they regularly kill southern mountain reedbuck (30kg). If this impresses think for a moment about a 60kg impala that was killed by a hungry caracal. Not to mention a sitting ostrich, (plus/minus 100kg) attacked and bitten on the head! Caracal prey on a diverse selection of species and when it comes to birds, they often specialise in leaping up spectacularly and using their fore paws pouch sandgrouse and doves at waterholes, such is their speed and reflex actions, knocking down more than one bird is not uncommon.


Caracal are the only cat aside from leopard that will haul their kill into a tree to avoid competition from jackals and hyaenas. Unlike a leopard, a caracal does not seem to regularly return to a kill to feed, preferring to make a fresh kill. This behaviour makes them almost impossible to bait, and the most effective and sporting way of hunting one from a trophy point of view is with the use of hounds.

Even with hounds though, the success of a hunt cannot be guaranteed, with ‘hunters luck’ playing a big part. Due to a caracal’s solitary lifestyle and wariness not, much is known about them, although their pattern of existence is like leopard. Radio collared adult males have been found to range over areas from 30 sq km to 50 sq km. One caracal male monitored in the Kalahari was found to be ranging over a vast 300 sq km. Impressive indeed for a 20kg cat.              


When hunting caracal in game reserves and on game ranches, hounds must be 100% game proof and not become distracted by game scent or the sight of game. Their task is to locate a caracal and/or jackal not chase, harass, or kill valuable game. Hound packs running in the Eastern Cape coastal area around Port Alfred, Kenton on Sea, and inland to Grahamstown, gave me my first real exposure to the fun and challenge of hunting the wily caracal. One of these packs known as the ‘Highlands Pack’ had a fair mix of grey hounds and grey hound crosses. This pack needed speed and massive acceleration, because catering to sheep farmers they mainly hunted the ubiquitous jackal. A client of mine took one of the biggest caracal male’s I’ve ever seen while we were using this pack. It was brought to bay in a strangler fig growing out of a rock face.


Port Alfred hunter Jeff Ford also runs a productive pack of hounds managed by his highly experienced houndsman Tim Mbambosi. Tim does PAC work from Monday to Friday of each week. And when running with the hounds he doesn’t carry a stock whip, he carries an over/under 12ga that has seen better days, although the binding of red insulation tape seems to be holding it together well! If there are no clients on the hunt Tim kills any treed caracal, whilst with flushed jackal, his hounds run it down and do the killing themselves. Jeff likes to try and concentrate in the main on caracal; his is not only a PAC (Problem Animal Control) program serving the agricultural community, but also a service to the safari industry. Thus, his hounds are mainly Blue Tick, or Blue Tick x Foxhound with no Greyhound as their turn of speed could prove detrimental when trying to tree a caracal for a paying client. Greyhounds invariably catch and kill a flushed caracal before it is treed.


The hounds on the other hand lope along on the scent, loudly giving tongue as they go. This invariably builds to a crescendo of excitement as they draw ever closer to the cat, until a desperate leap for the safety of a tree takes the caracal out of their reach. Not deterred by this change of events, the hounds endeavour to leap and clamber up the tree trunk. With the noise being generated by the baying hounds, it is understandable why clients often describe a caracal hunt as an ‘awesome experience.’ One client of mine, Leonora, from British Columbia had barely arrived in camp, and was still settling into her chalet, when all hell suddenly broke loose across the river from us. I was walking back to my chalet when I heard the hounds going berserk as only, they can when they hit hot scent.  


When I’d left for the airport, they’d gone out on a normal PAC run, and not having found anything were walking back along a management track to their kennels at the game ranch HQ. It was already a warm late morning and the ground was bone dry. Suddenly the lead dogs went into full cry and broke left up a steep embankment leading onto a heavily wooded incline. A caracal possibly disturbed by them had seemingly leapt across the track right under their noses. Within a 100m of the track the hounds had the caracal treed. The houndsman radioed the manager, who in turn called me and asked if my client wanted a caracal, I informed him we’d be on our way immediately. Leonora didn’t even get a chance to change out of the clothes she’d arrived in. We jumped into the truck, crossed the river, and linked up with the houndsman who was waiting alongside the track.


After working our way up, the steep incline and fighting our way through dense bush, we eventually arrived amongst the highly-excited hounds. Most of which were nearly hoarse from yelling, a few of the younger less experienced ones broke off from shouting abuse at the caracal and popped across to Leonora and me for a quick ear scratch and compliment. Then it was back to work. Interestingly the caracal had made itself comfortable in the upper branches of the tree and gone to sleep. In its mind, perhaps the noisy canines below the tree would eventually give up and go their way. It was not to be because I pre-positioned Leonora off to one side and using a 12ga No4 shell she fetched the caracal out of the tree. It was dead before it hit the ground and proved to be a huge male.


Given that we have modern technology at our disposal by way of handheld radios and mobile phones, older sport hunters shouldn’t be deterred about hunting a caracal with hounds. Invariably the hunt can be followed, within limits, by a vehicle travelling along roads near the hunt. Once the hounds flush a caracal, the houndsman immediately lets the hunters know by mobile or radio. It is then the PH’s task to get the client as close to the site of the action as possible and once the cat is treed the client and PH make their way to that point. Sometimes, and more particularly so, if you are hunting in dense dune forest or kloofs of the Eastern Cape, the walk in to the treed caracal might prove a bit tiring because it requires a fair amount of bending and twisting through the thick bush. If on the coast, this isn’t helped any by the heavy dune sand underfoot.    


Only twice in my professional hunting career have I known of a caracal being shot as an opportunistic trophy during daylight hours without the use of hounds. Once was on a Zimbabwe game ranch in early morning mist, and the other occasion was in the late eighties when I was guiding an Austrian in the Ciskei. We were sitting on a cliff face one afternoon glassing for mountain reedbuck. Suddenly about 120m below us, and in the fading sunlight there was a tawny blur which translated into a caracal killing a dassie (hyrax) which had been sunning itself on the rock. My client desperately wanted a caracal and we’d already run the hounds twice, without result. Now, with the sun directly behind us, the cat couldn’t see us and adrenalin filled after catching the dassie, sat with it clutched firmly between its forepaws whilst biting down on the body. My client was a good shot and wasting little time, we soon had the caracal headed to the skinning shed.


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