This time last year, if someone called me to report a caracal caught in a gin trap in an affluent part of Cape Town, South Africa, I would’ve thought it was one of those fluke rare cases. But the longer I work on the Urban Caracal Project, I am realising that the struggle to live in harmony with wildlife is more pervasive than I could’ve imagined. My fear is that the story of our 26th caracal, which we named Prospero, is not rare.
I was asleep on a Saturday night when a phone call from a local community member woke me at 11pm. The request: “Please come help – a caracal is caught in a snare and we don’t know what to do….” A bit groggy, I started to ask questions – a snare? Where are you? Did you set the snare? Is the animal severely injured? They didn’t have answers, and it didn’t matter. Quick action was the most important thing, and not just by me.
The family that called me, tenants in a home nearby where the caracal was illegally caught, were just as surprised as me by the circumstances they found themselves in and are to be applauded for mobilising in the way they did. They got in touch with one of our project vets, Dr. Aimmee Knight, so that she could bring the drugs I would need to dart Prospero. They also called Megan Reid, the Wildlife Unit Coordinator for the Cape of Good Hope SPCA. And along with Urban Caracal Project field team manager Joleen Broadfield, we quickly gathered so that we could set Prospero free.
When I arrived, I saw immediately that Prospero was actually caught in a gin trap that was affixed to a shed with rabbits. It was unclear if whoever was tending the rabbit shed was having issues with predators killing rabbits. In these cases, the best tactic to keep the rabbits or other pets safe is actually to reinforce the shed. But as is a story I’ve heard now so many times, rather than reinforcing the shed they were choosing to persecute any potential wildlife that got close to the shed instead. Gin traps are just one method that people use to persecute wildlife.
Prospero had fought himself to exhaustion in his efforts to break free. And further fighting meant that he could seriously injure himself beyond what the trap itself did to his paw. I could see he was caught by just a few toes. Because of this I was optimistic as I loaded my dart that if I could quickly drug him and get him out of the trap, he could be released somewhere safe, possibly even that night.
When I approached Prospero to dart him, he lunged and jumped around, trying to get away from me. He was terrified. I was quiet and calm so I could slowly sneak close to him. He calmed down a bit and finally I had my shot. I blew into my blowpipe and the dart hit him square in his flank with a lucky perfect first shot.
Within 10 minutes, he was asleep from the immobilising drugs. Aimmee and I immediately released him from the trap to start assessing the extent of his injuries. Our examination revealed he had been caught by only two toes. During his efforts to get free he had clearly dislocated them, and it was possible that they were broken.
We decided to take him to Aimmee’s clinic to get x-rays on his foot before we would make the next decision – release him that night, or take him to the SPCA to give him a chance to recuperate the mobility in his foot before release. Putting wild animals in cages is stressful, and we wanted to choose carefully for Prospero and minimise the time he was stressed.
We conducted the x-rays at the Penzance Veterinary Clinic and found that he only had two dislocated toes that Aimmee was able to reset. We decided Prospero could still benefit from a couple days in rehabilitation. We wanted to ensure that he could move on his foot before we released him back to the wild where he would have to hunt on his own to survive.
Within three days, Prospero’s foot healed nicely and he was in excellent condition. He is an adult male caracal, weighing 13kg, typical of full-grown males in the Peninsula. We fitted him with a collar, and loaded him up in the SPCA bakkie. We then took him to a protected area in Table Mountain National Park where, with permission from SANParks, we released him.
Prospero was fortunate in so many ways. But not all caracals, or other wildlife that are illegally trapped, are this lucky. I am learning that the frequency with which landowners choose to take persecutory action against predators is shockingly high and seems to be the first measure taken to try to resolve conflict with neighbouring predators. Last week we received seven different calls about caracals causing trouble by killing cats, chickens, sheep, and native species such as duikers and grysbok. Each person calling requested we trap and relocate the animal, even in the case where the caracal was preying on native species.
All of these animals that were attacked by a predator were roaming free and caracals were blamed every time. But there are many predators, other than caracals, that will also take advantage of an easy meal of chickens or domestic cats, so even if we rid the landscape of caracals entirely, the problems would persist. The best solution is to protect pets and livestock properly by building them shelter and keeping them safe inside, especially at night.
We often imagine this type of human-wildlife conflict to be far away in farmlands, but it hits close to home even in the city. Many people live near those green spaces because they appreciate nature and the beauty of the mountains. Predatory species play an integral role in these ecosystems but with ever-increasing habitat loss and encroachment into the areas that wildlife occupies these predators struggle to adapt.
Propsero’s story, luckily, hasn’t ended thanks to the community that supported his release – the SPCA, the family that called and Penzance Veterinary Clinic. We have been monitoring his movements using his radio-collar, and find that he largely “hangs around” the area where he was initially trapped. We hope that he lives a long productive life given this second chance, but that will rely on us, as a community, to change the way we interact with our environment.
The Urban Caracal Project of South Africa is currently raising funds to continue its work through a crowdfunding campaign – The Urban Caracal Project: Exploring how wild caracals persist in a rapidly urbanizing landscape