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Animal encounters

Big cats and where to spot them in the wild

Clive Wedderburn January 24, 2018

If you’ve always wanted to spot big cats in the wild (and let’s face it, who wouldn’t) let us take you straight to the heart of the action, keeping you safe at all times and surrounded by a host of other spectacular game viewing experiences. When it comes to wildlife holidays, we’ll be your expert trackers in the field.

Where to spot… tigers?

(Panthera tigris)

Ranthambore National Park – India

Lifespan: 20 – 26 years (In captivity)

Weight: 65 – 310kg

Length: 2 – 3.9m

Fact: Tigers love water and will go for a paddle to cool off. No two tigers have the same stripes – each tiger is unique.

An India Golden Triangle tour is the ideal starting place when it comes to tigers, the biggest of all the cat family.  Not only will you wander through Delhi’s mosques and temples, Jaipur’s romantic palaces including the Taj Mahal, but you’ll also venture into the grasslands and forests of Ranthambore National Park, as Sally, Facilities Manager and intrepid big cat spotter found out to her delight.

“Ranthambore is definitely the place to see tigers in their natural habitat, all the top photographers come here time and time again. On my visit (after researching best times I plumped for May) we went on two safaris, in the morning and in the afternoon. On the morning visit we saw a group of five tigers with cubs playing at a waterhole. Later that afternoon we spotted a tiger at the entrance to the park, which caused quite a storm as he came within a couple of feet of our open jeep (so long as you keep your body inside the jeep you’re OK). This was an amazing experience that will stay with me forever.

My tip is to go with a highly reputable safari company and try to do at least a couple of safaris, picking a good month for visibility."

Where to spot… lions?

(Panthera leo)

Botswana – Exploring Botswana Tour

Lifespan: 10 – 14 years

Weight: Up to 190 kg

Length: 1.4 – 2.5m

Top speed: 50mph

Fact: Lions once lived worldwide in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, North America, and Northern India. They even lived in Britain.

If you want to get close to wildlife then take a fly-in safari to Botswana, according to big cat enthusiast and Destination Specialist, Becky.

“At Deception Valley Lodge in the Kalahari, they have so many lions around that they’ve installed a small electric fence around the entrance to the property; the lions kept ripping up their leather sofas each night and it was becoming expensive to repair. The family who owned the lodge took us out after dinner because we saw an injured kudu that afternoon. The guide said: that'll be the lion’s dinner... and so it was – right outside the lodge.

I have to say though, that the best 25 minutes of my life was sitting in a light aircraft flying over the Botswana wilderness, spotting elephants and giraffes below. The pilot had to circle the airstrip while the ground crew below drove a jeep onto the runway to scare the animals, particularly lions, who like to laze around in the short grass. That’s how close you are to the animals in Botswana.”

Where to spot … jaguars?

(Panthera onca)

Pantanal – Brazil – April–November

Weight: 56 – 96 kg

Length: 1.2 – 2 m

Lifespan: 12 – 15 years

Top speed: 64 mph 

Fact: Jaguars can climb, and love to hide in trees to pounce on unsuspecting victims – so best to look up!

We’d recommend you embark on a Pantanal Discovery tour of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil; it’s a nature-lover’s dream expedition. But here’s the snag. The jaguar is obviously a master of camouflage. Likelihood is, you’ll see a huge variety of incredible jungle critters that will amaze you, yet all the while this beautiful cat might be studying you from a few metres away – and you’ll probably never know. It doesn’t detract from the simple fact that the teeming jungles of Pantanal are simply a dream wildlife experience for any keen animal enthusiast. 

Where to spot …leopards?

(Panthera pardus kotiya)

Yala National Park – Sri Lanka

Weight 23 – 31kg

Length: 90 – 160 cm

Lifespan: 12 – 17 years

Top speed: 36mph

Fact: Leopards communicate with each other through a series of distinctive calls, coughs, growls and when contented they purr, just like house cats. Aww!

Yala National Park contains a huge variety of animals, including the leopard. But in case you miss out on the chance of seeing this sleek predator on the prowl, there’s always elephants and crested hawk eagles to steal your attention. Take it from me, having visited Sri Lanka, the hushed silence that falls on your group when you spot a creature just yards from your jeep will make your hair stand on end.

Where to spot… cheetahs?

(Acinonyx jubatus jubatus)

Serengeti National Park – Tanzania

Weight: 21 – 72 kg

Length: 1.1 – 1.5 m

Lifespan: 20 years

Top speed: 74mph

Facts: If you get the opportunity to meet a cheetah up close, count quickly and you will see it has between 2–3,000 spots.

Exploring Tanzania is the same as walking through an open zoo. So how do you spot cats amid such huge distances? Follow the Great Annual Migration. It‘s worth remembering that it is the wildebeest, antelope and zebra that roam ceaselessly, following grazing routes across the Serengeti of Tanzania and the Masai Mara of Kenya. Predators like the cheetah and the lion, meanwhile, mostly do not roam, preferring to wait until the herds cross their path. A Bush Rover Experience will perch you right above the action in a stunning converted Land Rover luxury safari tent.

Where to spot… mountain lions?

(Puma concolor)

Yosemite National Park – California

Weight: 29 – 100kg

Length: 2 – 2.4m

Lifespan: up to 13 years

Top speed: 50mph

Fact: Pumas, cougars, panthers and mountain lions are one and the same species.

If you spot a mountain lion in Yosemite, count yourself lucky, or unlucky, depending on your point of view. Note to self: Do not turn and run (they’re so much faster than you) but make yourself as big as possible and slowly back away. They are extremely shy of humans, just like many cat species, and utter only a low growl or hiss. They make their homes in caves to raise their young, who have spotted fur before they eventually attain the reddish-brown coat of adult mountain lions.

Where to spot … Canadian lynx?

(Lynx canadensis)

Yukon – Northwest Canada

Weight: 8 – 11 kg

Length: 76 – 110 cm

Lifespan: 15 – 20 years

Fact: Their rotund, widespread paws are covered in fur that act as snowshoes to prevent them sinking.

As with most wild cat experiences, you’ll need to employ the services of an expert guide to get you close to the Canadian Lynx. Their main quarry is the snowshoe hare, a creature whose survival they’re closely linked to. When the hare population is high, so are the occurrences of lynx.  The best way to spot them is to get out on a lake in a kayak and keep a close eye on the shoreline. Their tracks are also clearly evident in the snow in the colder months. 

Explore Yukon in the wilds of northwest Canada and experience many breathtaking wildlife encounters including bears, eagles and wolves. You’ll also discover the First Nation culture who traditionally use lynx fur for their ancient ceremonies. And the crowning glory might just be the best lightshow of all: the Aurora Borealis.  

Where can families spot big cats in the wild?

Another place that comes highly recommended for families is the Shamwari Game Reserve in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. Their Born Free Foundation is at the forefront of raising awareness for the preservation and rehabilitation of big cat species. Families can stay at the Riverdene Lodge, featuring an infinity pool, play rooms plus a jungle gym. Little ones can join the Kids on Safari Programme to become mini-rangers.   


Lesley, Managing Director of Hayes & Jarvis, suggests the extensive list of activities available for families at Sun City.

Sun City is a couple of hour’s easy drive from Johannesburg. I have taken my family there several times for 4/5 days and we all love it. The beautiful scenery, loads of activities, free daily waterpark access with wave pool, lazy river and slides is perfect for families. There’s a wide range of restaurant choices from casual to fine dining, but with the value for money we get from the rand, it’s also very cheap! It's also on the doorstep of Pilansberg National Park where you can take a variety of safaris, all of which leave from your hotel complex and drop you back. We have seen a variety of animals, including lions close up.”  

So, if you’re feeling intrepid and want to get out into the wild to spot your favourite big cat, but you’re still in need of a little more inspiration, visit our wildlife holiday pages and start planning your next adventure of a lifetime.