You may have heard that wonderful song which goes under various names, most famously ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight. It was written by a South African, Solomon Linda, about Shaka Zulu, which includes that immortal line ‘in the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight’. Well, hear’s some news just in: lions don’t live in jungles! However, a lot of big cats do but not on the African continent.
Confused? You will be!
Cats, or more properly Felidae are a very large biological family. The family is split into two subgroups, Felinae and Pantherinae, with some African wild cats belonging to the latter group (most notably the leopard and lion) whereas the cheetah and serval for example belong to the Felinae. The principal distinction between these two subgroups is that pantherine cats are able to roar, because of the way their jaw and larynx are configured. Feline cats cannot roar. The domestic cat belongs to the felinae group (which is a good thing, because coming home to a roaring rather than a meowing cat could have its downsides….)
All cats have exceptionally good eye sight, in fact it’s about six times better than a human’s, so you can rest assured that they have seen you a very long time before you have seen them. When you’re on a game drive at night, because of the way a lion’s or cheetah’s eyes are made, you will see that they reflect even a very low level of light. It’s quite amazing to come across a big cat at night as the trackers are normally able to spot them from the game viewer simply by looking for the reflections of their eyes. If you’re lucky enough to see a lion at night, note that they have extremely sensitive night vision, so never shine your torch at a lion at night or use flash photography. It can startle them.
Asia and South America actually have lot more different types of cat than Africa, but not necessarily the prevalence that we have in Africa. In South Africa, we only have two big cats that belong to the Panthera genus, and they are the lion (Panthera leo) and the leopard (Panthera pardus). The only other big cat you’ll find in South Africa is the cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus), which is of the only extant member of the genus acinonyx. The carcal which is of the Caracal genus (no points there) is not a small animal but nowhere near as large the lion, leopard and cheetah.
We also have three small cats, the Southern African wildcat, which looks very similar to a domestic cat only with much longer legs, the small spotted cat (very small shy cat weighing no more than 2kg) and the serval (which is perhaps the most striking in appearance of the small cats).
One of the most common questions visitors to South Africa ask is how to tell the difference between a leopard and a cheetah. The simplest is to look at the faces. A cheetah has long black stripes which look to be coming out of both the sides of its eyes. The line extends to the front of the jaw from the inside of the eye. Leopards have only spots on their faces, no lines. A leopard is also a much stockier animal whereas you can see that a cheetah is lithe and built for speed.
All cats are generally quite shy creatures and you will be very lucky to spot all the South African cats on one trip in the wild, particularly the wildcat which is largely nocturnal.
One way around this is to visit the many cat sanctuaries in South Africa or the much smaller and little-known reserves. For example, the caracal can be seen at the De Hoop Nature Reserve in the Overberg which is less than two hour’s drive from Cape Town. Cheetah sightings in the wild are actually better in the north of the country such as the De Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Trust or the Moholoholo Rehab Centre in Limpopo.