Book ID 802
Barrett, Amanda A cat called caracal, 2004
Extract Author: Amanda Barrett
Extract Date: Feb 2004
Film maker Amanda Barrett describes her months on the plains with the elusive caracal - the sleekest, most elegant and most catlike cat of all.
Images: Owen Newman
Over the years, Owen Newman and I had filmed cheetahs, lions, leopards, African wildcats and servals (for the first ever film of them) but never caracals. In fact, in all that time, we'd only ever seen one once - eight years ago in Zambia. It was a tantalising glimpse of black ears and almond-shaped eyes that made us hungry for more.
Eventually, it was the caracal's turn. The BBC commissioned us to make a Natural World programme starring caracals, and with the help of Ndutu Safari Lodge and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority, we were able to stretch the budget to cover 10 months. We knew we'd need every day of that, and sure enough, from November to January, we had nothing but two brief glimpses of the cats.
Then one night in late January, we found one, and to our relief, got some footage. But we never saw that caracal again and, after three nights of looking, decided to go elsewhere. And there - right out on the plains, two or three kilometres from any woodland - was another one. She looked heavily pregnant and was stopping every now and then to inspect aardvark holes. We knew that if we could keep up with her for the next few weeks, we were on to a winner.
We did, and she turned out to be a star. The night we found her, we filmed her catching a stork, leaping so high to grab it that Owen could barely keep her in the frame. Our luck had turned. We then found others, and we began to see patterns in their behaviour, which made them much easier to predict.
The female had her kittens, three of them, and we filmed them suckling. Several weeks later, we found her chewing on the carcass of a stork next to an aardvark hole. As she was eating it, we all heard something coming and waited nervously. At the last minute, the kittens shot down the hole - and spotted hyenas arrived.
We'd seen leopards and even lions run from hyenas, but the caracal stood her ground. She hissed, spat and arched her back, and the hyenas kept their distance, though they did manage to grab the stork. When they'd ripped it to bits, they ran off into the darkness. The caracal waited for a second or two, then went to the kittens' hole and called with a soft meow and purr. All three tumbled out, and the mother and babies trotted off, not stopping until they were a good kilometre away.
That turned out to be the last time we ever saw the family. Maybe the female took her kittens elsewhere in case the hyenas came back. From a film-making point of view, it didn't really matter. In the time we'd spent with her and the other caracals, we'd got all the footage we needed - and had had all the excitement we could have dreamed of.
From an original article in the February 2004 issue of BBC Wildlife Magazine.