Baying in the Dune Forests - Hunting Caracal with Hounds in the Eastern Cape
by Kevin Thomas
Eastern Cape winter mornings can be cold, with a biting wind chill further enhanced by the moving vehicle as we drive the less travelled roads of outlying farms. In the back of the truck our hounds stand bunched, legs braced against the bumping vehicle, faces eager with anticipation looking out into the passing bush, nostrils testing the air, brains computing the varying scents. Once the tail gate is dropped a blur of white black and orange, hits the ground running, tails whipping, and noses down seeking any lingering feline scent that may still be clinging to the dew dampened grass.
When it comes to hunting with hounds I never pass up the chance if a client of mine indicates that he would like to hunt a caracal. South Africa’s Eastern Cape is hound hunting territory and the caracal a well represented predator. It’s also a wily adversary and makes for a worthy and challenging trophy. Little compares to the company of twelve eager hounds on a cold morning, a picturesque sunrise over the Indian Ocean, warm hound breath, floppy ears and occasional friendly visits back to the hunters by one or two hounds whilst the search for scent goes on. A sort of canine way of saying, “Relax guys, we’ll find this cat because we enjoy hunting 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 and stomping our feet in the cold pre-dawn light, the hounds cast wide for scent, in next to no time they are way below us in a valley. Running with them is ‘houndsman’ Tim Mbambosi, and every now and then his voice carries up to us, loudly chivvying and encouraging his pack. It helps add to the sense of anticipation, as do the odd excited barks emanating from the dark bush in the valley. 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 and the constant roar of the sea never ceases.
Our African caracal is commonly referred to as a ‘lynx’ when in fact it is not closely 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’ because of the prominent black tufts on the ear tips.
In the Afrikaans language, the caracal is descriptively called a ‘rooikat’ (red cat) and this name is derived from their brick red colour although they also tend towards a tawny brown. Height at shoulder is about 40 – 45cm with a mature male weighing on average 13 to 20kg. The smaller female weighs about 10kg. Largely a nocturnal hunter, the caracal is also found beyond Africa, in southern Asia and as far as central northern India. They prefer our drier arid scrub covered regions but can also be found in montane and evergreen forest although not in tropical rain forest. In parts of South Africa’s western reaches and in neighbouring Namibia, the population is thought to be increasing due to the eradication of jackal, a natural regulator of caracal kittens.
The caracal is not only courageous, but also combative; they are on record as having killed adult springbok (40kg) and regularly kill mountain reedbuck (30kg), and if this impresses think for a moment about a 60kg impala that was killed by a hungry caracal and a young kudu, not to mention a sitting ostrich attacked and bitten on the head! This latter kill was ascertained after the caracal was surprised feeding on the dead ostrich. Researcher Gus Mills wrote that the ostrich must have weighed close to 100kg. All of the above mentioned kills aside, caracal prey on a diverse selection of species and when it comes to birds, often specialise in leaping up spectacularly and using their fore paws ‘pouch’ sandgrouse and doves at waterholes. Such is their speed and reflex actions, that knocking down more than one bird is not uncommon. They are also known to have killed kori bustard, our heaviest flying bird.
Caracals are the only cat aside from leopard that will haul their kill into a tree in order to avoid competition from jackals and hyaenas. Unlike a leopard however, 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, unless you can find a fresh kill partially covered by soil and leaf matter. Thus we find that probably the most effective and sporting way of hunting caracal from a trophy point of view is with the use of hounds.
Even with hounds though, the success of a hunt cannot be guaranteed, ‘hunters luck’ too, and as always plays a big part. Due to the species solitary lifestyle and wariness not much is known about the caracal, although their pattern of existence is seemingly very similar to leopard. Research has indicated that radio collared adult males range over areas from 30 sq km to 50 sq km in extent, although one caracal male monitored in the Kalahari was found to be ranging over a vast 300 sq km. Impressive indeed for a 20kg cat.
My first exposure to hunting with hounds was back in 1985 in the Ciskei black homeland of old, and even then I was peripheral to many of the actual hunts, but a keen observer nevertheless. In our employ at Tsolwana Game Reserve at the time, was a young hunter, Roy Sparks, not long out of his compulsory National Service. He lived for his hounds, as did his two Queenstown friends, Andrew Mayger and Errington Miles.
Like most game reserves that are more ‘game ranch’ than ‘game reserve’, if left unchecked, predator populations can spiral out of hand. For this reason we monitored closely our jackal and caracal populations. Both of these species are considered problem animals by small stock farmer’s and with our South African neighbours being sheep and Angora goat farmers, we had a delicate PR
act to follow because when they started suffering stock losses from caracal and jackal, they soon cast their eyes towards our game reserves as the problem animal’s breeding ground.
Roy Sparks ran a pack of hounds as did his buddy Errington and it was from them that I first heard breed names like ‘Blue Ticks’. Their packs also included foxhounds; Jack Russell’s and grey hounds, not to mention a few experimental cross breeds and imported bloodlines. Kill efficiency was what they were striving for in their quest to make money out of PAC (Problem Animal Control). Their hounds were good and I often followed in their wake, content to watch through my binoculars the progress of the chase, up hill and down dale in the Winterberg Range. Baying hounds giving tongue, chunking, bellowing, howling and yowling coupled to the excited yapping of Jack Russell speak carrying on the wind was an exhilarating experience for me, and has remained so ever after. Far off in the valley a running houndsman would also be yelling encouragement and cracking a stock whip in his efforts to keep the hunt focused.
When hunting in game reserves and on game ranches, hounds have to be 100% game proof and not become distracted by game scent or the sight of game, their task is to locate lynx and/or jackal not chase, harass, or kill valuable game.
By 2002 I had become more exposed to hound packs running in the Eastern Cape coastal area around Port Alfred, Kenton on Sea and inland to Grahamstown. One of these packs known as the ‘Highlands Pack’ had a fair mix of grey hounds and grey hound crosses – they needed speed and massive acceleration because catering to the sheep farmer they mainly hunted the ubiquitous jackal. A client of mine took one of the biggest caracal male’s I’ve ever seen whilst using this pack; it was brought to bay in a strangler fig growing out of a rock face.
In about 2006 I had my first exposure to hunting with Jeff Ford’s 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 pretty 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 program serving the agricultural community, but also a service to the safari industry. Thus, his hounds are mainly Blue Tick, or Blue Tick cross Foxhound with no Greyhound as their turn of speed could prove detrimental when trying to tree a caracal for a paying client, because they 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. Couple this image in your mind to the amount of noise being generated in dense dune forest, and it is little wonder clients often describe a caracal hunt as an ‘awesome experience’.
It doesn’t always go according to plan though and on one hunt back in 2000 we had the pack chase a caracal down a hole in the side of a termite mound. It took us longer to dig open the hole than the chase had lasted. My client eventually had to peer into a dark tunnel and ‘plink’ the caracal with a hurriedly brought in .22 long. Yet it can sometimes be too easy, Leonora Gilbert had flown in from Saudi Arabia, a native of British Colombia she had just completed a nursing contract in Saudi. Leonora had bought my donated safari on auction at a BC Safari Chapter fundraiser.
Because she had flown directly in from the Middle East, she was going to use my 7x57mm Mauser for the plains game and for her caracal my Browning 12ga. On the morning of her arrival I’d picked her up at the Port Elizabeth airport and we’d driven to Kikuyu Lodge. As soon as we arrived she was shown to her chalet high above the Bushmans River and left to settle in, however, Diana that fickle Goddess of hunting wasn’t going to allow her any settling in time.
I was still walking down to my chalet when I heard all hell break loose on the opposite side of the Bushmans River; the hounds were going berserk as only they can when they hit ‘hot’ scent. When I’d left for the airport I didn’t know the hounds had gone out that morning on a normal PAC run. Not having found anything they were walking back along a management track to their kennels at the 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 on to 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 in a tall cabbage tree and the houndsman radioed Harry Fourie who was the manager and resident PH at Kikuyu Lodge. Whilst I was looking across the river listening to the noise an employee of the lodge came running out and called me to the radio. It was Harry from his office asking me if I’d be interested in the caracal. Still watching the scene unfold on the opposite side of the river, I told him that 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 rig and hauled across the river to where the houndsman was waiting for us alongside the track.
After huffing and puffing our way up the steep incline and fighting our way through dense bush we arrived amongst the highly excited hounds that were all nearly hoarse from yelling. As is the way with hounds, a few of the younger less experienced ones broke off from shouting at the caracal and popped across to Leonora and I for a quick ear scratch, compliment and pat, then it was back to work. Hounds look upon treeing a caracal as serious business.
Interestingly the caracal had made himself comfortable in the upper branches of the tree and gone to sleep – in his 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 one 12ga AAA 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 cell phones, older sport hunters shouldn’t be deterred about hunting a caracal with hounds, hell I’m 58! Invariably the hunt can be followed – within limits – by a vehicle travelling along roads in the vicinity of the hunt. Once the hounds flush a caracal the houndsman immediately lets the hunters know by cell 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, and if on the coast, this is not helped any by the heavy dune sand underfoot.
Only twice in all my years as a professional hunter have I ever 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 track in early morning mist, the caracal was apparently just sitting in the middle of the track. I wasn’t guiding the client but because I was there with another client, I was called in with my Labrador to try and help find the caracal, which wounded had bolted off into the long grass. We eventually found it still alive, and it was quickly dispatched.
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, when 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 could not see us and adrenalin filled after catching the dassie, sat with it clutched firmly between its fore paws whilst biting down on the body. My client was a good shot and wasting little time, soon had the caracal headed to the salt in the skinning shed. As an addition to any trophy den our African caracal is indeed a worthy challenge.