Art, Culture, Books and Travel
Big Cats Of Africa
The cat, regarded by some as an animal that nature had made perfect from the outset, has undergone only the subtlest of changes, in evolutionary terms, over the last 30-odd million years.
It is Africa’s three great cats, the Lion, Cheetah and Leopard that inspire the most passionate legends the world over. Each of these cats is an icon in their own right.
The Power and Majesty of the Lion
Often called, “King of the Beasts”, the lion has an iconic reputation as a cat of great strength and beauty. The largest of Africa’s big cats, its regal legacy is enhanced by the male’s magnificent mane, which ranges from a rich golden colour to a darker brown hue as the animal ages.
Of course, the dominant male lion seldom does its own hunting, preferring instead to allow the females and adolescent males of the pride do the hard work before coming along and claiming its share of the kill. Weighing in at well over 200 kg in the wild, and standing at up to 2 metres at the shoulder, this huge animal cuts a formidable figure.
The most socially co-operative of all the big cats, their real strength lies in their ability to work together as a pride, using group hunting tactics to make the kill.
While they are primarily nocturnal, they are easily found during the day, conserving energy and resting in shady areas. The unwary tourist, enjoying the sight of these listless and “tame” animals while out on a safari game drive, would be well advised to note that lions are quick to become active if ever an easy meal opportunity may present itself.
The Cheetah a Symbol of Speed and Grace
Renowned as the fastest animal on land, the cheetah has a slender body, long legs and semi-retractable claws, with a short, coarse coat dotted with small, round, black spots.
It stands with a shoulder height of about 70cm, has a body length of 112-135 cm, a tail length 66-84 cm and weighs in around 34-54 kg, with males being slightly larger than females.
Far more slightly built that either the lion or the leopard, its strategic hunting advantage is its well-known ability to accelerate to incredible speeds over short distances. While not particularly adept at covering long distances, it can reach its maximum speed of around 110km/h (70mph) in mere seconds. Using careful stalking techniques, it tracks prey and approaches to within 20 -30 metres before unleashing its pace weapon, leading to successful kills in about 50% of chases.
Decline in prey, loss of habitat, poaching, and its reputation as a livestock predator threaten the survival of the cheetah throughout its range.
The Ruthless Efficiency of the Lone-Hunting Leopard
Leopards, sometimes called the “quintessential cat” are the most elusive of the three big cats of Africa. Standing at around 80cm at the shoulder, and weighing between 40 and 70kg, these cats are more powerful but slower than cheetahs, and substantially smaller than lions.
Solitary hunters, leopards seek company only to mate, and are constantly in danger of losing their kill to lions. For this reason, they use their supreme climbing ability to drag their prey into trees for safekeeping. While the more substantial kills are cached in this way, with the cat returning later to feed, leopards are opportunistic animals with an extremely flexible diet. They are happy to consume protein in almost any form, from beetles to animals almost twice its own weight and will readily eat carrion.
To observe these big cats in their natural habitat is a privilege not to be missed. Reading about them, or seeing them on TV often gives an interesting insight into their lives, but getting up close to these magnificent beasts when on a game drive, will leave you inspired.
Big Cats Facts
- The cheetah is the world’s fastest land mammal. It can run at speeds of up to 70 miles an hour (113 kilometers an hour).
- An adult lion’s roar can be heard up to five miles (eight kilometers) away.
- Long, muscular hind legs enable snow leopards to leap seven times their own body length in a single bound.
- A tiger’s stripes are like fingerprints—no two animals have the same pattern.
- The strongest climber among the big cats, a leopard can carry prey twice its weight up a tree.
- The Amur leopard is one of the most endangered animals in the world.
- In one stride, a cheetah can cover 23 to 26 feet (7 to 8 meters).
- The name “jaguar” comes from a Native American word meaning “he who kills with one leap.”
- In the wild, lions live for an average of 12 years and up to 16 years. They live up to 25 years in captivity.
- The mountain lion and the cheetah share an ancestor.
- Cheetahs do not roar, as the other big cats do. Instead, they purr.
- Tigers are excellent swimmers and do not avoid water.
- A female Amur leopard gives birth to one to four cubs in each litter.
- Fossil records from two million years ago show evidence of jaguars.
- Lions are the only cats that live in groups, called prides. Every female within the pride is usually related.
- The leopard is the most widespread of all big cats.
- Mountain lions are strong jumpers, thanks to muscular hind legs that are longer than their front legs.
- Tigers have been hunted for their skin, bones, and other body parts, used in traditional Chinese medicine.
- Unlike other cats, lions have a tuft of hair at the end of their tails.
- After humans, mountain lions have the largest range of any mammal in the Western Hemisphere.