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African Landscapes from South Africa - The Big Cats
The Lion, Leopard and Cheetah - guaranteed to make your heart beat faster!
There is not much in this world as exciting as coming face to face with one of the big cats in the wilderness. Even if you are in the safety of your vehicle the excitement of seeing a Lion, Leopard or Cheetah in its natural environment is enough to send the adrenalin pumping through your veins. Sitting around a fire in one of the rest camps in Kruger National Park, Addo Elephant Park or Kgalagadi National Park and hearing out of the darkness the roar of a Lion as he stalks his prey is an experience never to be forgotten.
There are bigger animals like the Elephants, Hippo, Rhino and Buffalo that will impress with their size and power but it is still the encounter with one of the cats that stirs the souls. As a Lion walks through the grass it is the grace and royalty of its movement that announces that the King has arrived. The Leopard, as he sharpens his nails in the tree where he waits for supper time, seems to be in no hurry to find his next meal. For sheer grace and beauty of movement and speed one needs to watch the Cheetah as is first stalks and then runs down its prey.
It is not easy to find these animals in the wild and in a day in the Kruger National Park one would probably find one of the two cats that are part of the Big Five group. When people report seeing four of the Big Five during a day’s searching and it is often the Leopard that is missing. This is because it is a nocturnal hunter and so spends daylight hours in a tree or a shady spot waiting for night to come.
While the Lions also hunt at night they are often also seen during the day as they relax in their pride under some shady trees or perhaps feed on the animal they caught the previous night. Lions are the only Big Cats that live in groups and cooperate in hunting. The primary hunters are the females while the male roar frightens the prey towards the females who lay in wait. Here it is often the arrival of Vultures that indicate a kill as they first circle and then land in nearby trees to wait their turn to feed.
Leopards are the smallest of the cats and are found singly and blend in so well with the environment so that they are difficult to spot. They enjoy the widest distribution of the large four cats. Although smaller than the others they are very powerful and can kill large animals with their strong jaws. A Leopard is impressive because of its obvious muscle. They are also good climbers and can carry their prey into trees where the food is safe from other predators.
The Cheetah hunts in the plains during the day because it depends on its pure speed to catch the antelope that it fancies for lunch. The sleek long body of the Cheetah is designed to move very fast and after stalking to get as close as possible to its prey is moves in amazing speed to run it down. This cat has been measured at almost 100 km. per hour, but can only maintain that speed for a short distance. Recently one was timed over a hundred meters, breaking Usain Bolts world record for the distance by several seconds.
Speaking to wild life photographers I have been told that Kgalagadi is the best place in South Africa to find the cats. Because it is semi-desert all the animals come to the river or drinking holes for water every day and so the cats follow. The only cat in the big four list missing in Africa is the Tiger.
The expensive private game reserves (for example those found along the borders of the Kruger National Park) will guarantee their visitors a sighting of the big five, including Lion and Leopard, because the animals they have are contained in a much smaller area than Kruger or Kgalagadi. Here they drive you on a “safari” in their vehicles and the guide knows pretty well where the game is. Rather give me the adventure of looking for the cats in the wider landscape of the big game reserves. My interest is also in the birds and other animals that are to be found as you drive along the roads that follow the river courses or cross the plains.
One of my favorite wilderness experiences in Kruger National Park or Addo Elephant National Park is to watch Elephants as they feed so near my car that I can hear their stomach rumbling. Coming face to face with a Buffalo or Rhino as they stare me down, seeming to say “don’t come any closer” is also guaranteed to speed up my heart rate. It is however the roar of a male Lion at night that tells me I am in the African Wilderness and the King with his pride is out hunting.