One of Africa’s most beautiful small cats, the caracal, is considered a rare and beautiful sighting in the wild – one that is prized by game drive enthusiasts. Unfortunately, caracals are considered a pest by farmers, who blame the the small feline for killing livestock and often trap or shoot caracals on sight.
For this reason, the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre (HESC) would like to educate people about caracals, and show them just how amazing and skilled these animals are. To this end, the Centre is currently training two hand-reared caracals (that were donated to the Centre) to jump for a lure (a tennis ball on the end of a golf stick).
But how does one train a wild animal to perform tricks? To answer that question, one must first understand that jumping for a target is not tricky for a caracal. It is a powerful natural instinct that caracals use to catch their main prey birds. All the Centre is doing, is putting that natural behaviour on a cue, using clicker training.
Clicker training is a positive reinforcement training method whereby animals associate the sound the ‘clicker’ makes with the correct behaviour and rewarding the caracal with a treat – in this case a tasty morsel of beef. The Centre then uses a training method called “shaping” to achieve the final behaviour. The caracals are first rewarded for any interest or movement towards the tennis ball, then for touching the tennis ball with their paw, gradually building up to when they learn to jump for the tennis ball.
HESC is hopeful that when demonstrations begin people will be able to see how amazingly agile caracals are, and appreciate how special and unique these beautiful animals are. It’s important for us to save this species and release captive caracals back into the wild.