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Safari Big Cats Up Close

Updated on January 12, 2014

The Safari Big Three!

Undoubtedly the biggest attraction of any safari is seeing the big cats. Two of them, lions and leopards are included in the 'Big 5' of safari animals to see, along with the rhino, the buffalo and the elephant. But this list is arguable. I for one am highly disappointed if I do not see a cheetah on safari. The big cats are my own safari 'Big 3'.

Getting up close to the big cats on safari is an unforgettable experience. It can sometimes be difficult – as safari tourists will know, many of the safari operators keep close contact with each other via radio and 'exchange' sightings. The result can be a virtual traffic jam around a subject. I remember once counting twenty vehicles – it was very difficult to see which animal was being viewed!

However, on safari in Tsavo East National Park I was thankful that my safari operator was skilled in the art of locating game and has no requirement for a radio.

In the distance, by a water hole, our driver spotted something. It was too far away for my limited vision. He approached cautiously. Two lionesses had made a kill. It was my first sighting of a lion on safari and it took my breath away. Incredible. One lioness angrily roared defiance at one of our two vehicles, wanting to protect her kill from this intruder! She need have no fear - none of us would dare interfere. Her partner seemed too exhausted to care. It seems that they had had to work hard for this kill. No wonder one was keen to keep us at bay.

Its mutilated remains made it difficult to identify the unfortunate prey, but, on close examination of the resulting photo, it looks like a Thompson's gazelle. Here is the, rather gruesome, photo – not for the faint of heart.

Safari red in tooth and claw!

Often on safari you will come across a lone male lion, seemingly without a care in the world, maybe taking an afternoon nap. These photos were taken in the Maasai Mara National Park:


Also in the Maasai Mara, one of our safaris came across a female cheetah with her three mature cubs, sheltering from the sun in the brush. We switched off the car engine and the air resonated with their purring!


Not for the first time I was struck by the gentleness of these creatures: Big, lanky pussy cats! Of my Safari Big 3, this is the one that you could raise as a pet without fear that it might savage you. Not that you would want to take one out the wild, of course. Orphaned cubs from reserves are, from time to time, taken into human care, often because the mother has been taken by a lion. I remember BBC film maker Simon King's record of his efforts to introduce two orphaned cheetah cubs back to the wild in the Lewa Conservancy. One, like its mother, was killed by a lion and he questioned whether he had had done the right thing.

It's not an easy decision and some cubs are raised to adulthood in captivity. I was fortunate to get up close and personal to two such animals in the the orphanage attached to Nairobi National Park. As I said before, big lanky pussycats. One insisted on licking my arm affectionately. A big different from my dog, as the animal's tongue felt like coarse sandpaper - in fact, I had to stop it when I realised it was actually drawing blood! Reminds me of the joke about being licked to death...

Note the tongue!

Back to safari. The most difficult of my Big 3 to get up close to is, of course, the reclusive leopard. I have only come across this animal twice on safari. The most memorable is actually the occasion which emphasised its reclusiveness. On the same day as seeing the lion kill, our safari took us from Tsavo East National Park to Tsavo West on the other side of the Mombasa Road. Driving through thick undergrowth, my sharp-eyed friend Liz suddenly told us to reverse. She had spotted something. We all stared into the bush. There, camouflaged among the sun-dappled trees a few yards away, was our sleeping leopard. Sorry to say, we had disturbed its slumbers, as it raised its head, looked at us for a couple of seconds and then skulked away. I barely had time to get a photo. But I did and here it is:

That's the end of this short account of some up-close encounters with my Safari Big 3. For a video of more of my creative work, see here.


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    • CyberShelley profile image

      Shelley Watson 5 years ago

      What wonderful photos of your adventures in the Masai Mara, I hope to be going there one day. I have done Botswana, Zambia and South African's Kruger Park. Enjoyed your hub, voted up, beautiful and interesting.