The Complete Guide To: Big-cat safaris

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Lion, tiger, cheetah or leopard, nothing compares to the thrill of seeing these fabulous felines in their natural habitat, says Harriet O'Brien

Now you see them, now you don't

Clever camouflage, stealth, agility, split-second reactions: there's nothing quite like watching a wild cat in action. Particularly when you're not in front of the television and it's all for real, with accompanying smells and sounds.

From the African golden cat to the Eurasian lynx and the ocelot of the Amazon Basin, there are 36 species of wild cat spread across the globe – none very easy to see, even when it comes to the largest of these predators.

Quite which qualify as "big cats" is a contentious issue. Some sticklers maintain that only four members of the genus Panthera are true big cats. In descending order of height, these are tiger, lion, leopard and jaguar. Perversely, the defining attribute has less to do with size than vocal skill. These are the only felines able to roar (it is said that a lion's roar can be heard up to 8km away). Yet a few other magnificent creatures are often included as big cats: namely cougar, which are in fact generally taller than jaguar; cheetah, which are just a little smaller; and the marginally shorter snow leopard.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, which publishes a Red List of endangered species (iucnredlist.org), records declining numbers of all these cats. Cougar are rated of "Least Concern" and remain comparatively widespread across western Canada, the western US and South America. But jaguar and leopard have a "Near Threatened" status, while lion and cheetah are "Vulnerable", and tiger and snow leopard "Endangered".

The leading naturalist and photographer, Jonathan Scott, presenter of the BBC's Big Cat Diary, says: "Sadly, all of the big cats are under threat due to loss of habitat and conflict with livestock holders (and in some cases, with game ranchers); just too many people and not enough room to go round." This is not, though, a new phenomenon. "It took me six years to write my first book on leopards – that's how difficult it had become by the 1970s to find them, even in protected areas. An estimated 50,000 to 60,000 leopards were killed each year in Africa to feed the insatiable desire for spotted fur coats by the fashion industry."

Mane locations?

Of all the big cats, lion are generally the least difficult to track and watch. This is partly because they are uniquely sociable and live in large groups – and partly because many prides have become inured to being observed.

Just a few Asiatic lion exist, surviving in India's Gir Wildlife Sanctuary in Gujarat, but for truly great lion viewing, head to southern or eastern Africa. Reasonably high lion populations survive in the national parks and reserves of Tanzania, Namibia, Kenya and South Africa. It was in Kenya's stunning Masai Mara reserve that Scott's much-praised Big Cat Diary was filmed.

This year, Exodus (0845 863 9600; exodus. co.uk) is arranging 14 group safaris in Africa, with departures throughout 2009. One of its perennially popular holidays is a short trip that includes both the glittering lakes of the Rift Valley and the rolling savannah of the Masai Mara. The seven-day Classic Kenya Safari costs from £1,499 per person (based on two sharing accommodation, as are all prices below), including flights from Heathrow to Nairobi, accommodation, most meals, and safari guide.

Or take a stylish tailor-made tour. Audley (01993 838 500; audley travel.com) arranges private wildlife trips throughout Africa, and for good lion-viewing suggests a seven-night itinerary in Kenya from £2,825 per person. The cost includes three nights in luxury tented accommodation at Governor's Main Camp, where Big Cat Diary was based, and three nights at Kicheche's new Laikipia Camp, a supremely elegant bush camp in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, where there are fairly large numbers of lion as well as elephant and black rhino.

Where might I spot a leopard?

These elusive predators have adapted to many places across Asia and Africa, their spotted coats unique to each individual and providing almost perfect camouflage.

Londolozi and Mala Mala in South Africa are private game reserves adjacent to the Kruger National Park. Jonathan Scott says: "You can almost guarantee seeing a leopard (more likely a number of leopards) during your visit." Chris McIntyre, author of the Bradt guides to Botswana and Zambia, explains that leopard are generally nocturnal hunters: "The best times of day to see them are usually early evening and early morning, so to maximise your chances of sightings, you need to be in a park that allows night game-drives." The parks in Botswana and Zambia offer particularly good possibilities for sightings, with Zambia currently presenting especially good value in terms of holiday cost.

McIntyre is also managing director of Expert Africa (020-8232 9777; expertafrica.com), which arranges tailor-made wildlife trips across Africa – with itineraries devised from the company's wealth of knowledge of the continent. A 10-day trip in Botswana, including five nights in the leopard-rich Kwando-Linyanti area, and five nights in the Okavango Delta (where an Expert Africa trip recently had a memorable leopard sighting at Little Vimbura Camp), costs from £4,697 per person. The price covers flights from Heathrow to Johannesburg and all onward air travel to and in Botswana; all accommodation, safari meals and drinks, and game activities.

Meanwhile, a 10-day trip to Zambia's Luangwa Valley, including five nights at Mwaleshi Camp in remote North Luangwa Park, is a good £600 cheaper. The price from £4,020 per person includes flights from Heathrow to Lusaka, and onward air travel in Zambia; accommodation; meals and drinks on safari; and all game activities.

In East Africa, Scott recommends Serengeti National Park in Tanzania – in particular the Seronera Valley in the centre of the Park – as well as the Masai Mara, Samburu further north, and Lake Nakuru, as good places to see leopards.

Can I catch a cheetah?

Cheetah, the world's fastest animal, are even trickier to see than leopard. They are efficient hunters yet clumsy fighters, often losing the prey they have caught to more pugnacious predators. "Pressure from livestock and game ranchers is a problem for them," says Scott. "They don't scavenge and don't have the flexibility of the leopard." They also shy away from encounters with threatening animals, particularly man.

A cheetah sighting is really a matter of luck, says Roger Diski of Rainbow Tours. Namibia has the biggest population of these cats, while Sabi Sands in South Africa is also promising for cheetah-watching.

You are, of course, guaranteed cheetah at the cheetah and big-cat rehabilitation centres in South Africa and Namibia. Farmers, who traditionally shot cheetah in order to protect their livestock, have been increasingly encouraged to trap these predators and bring them to the rescue foundations. "The rehabilitation centres are a very necessary part of conservation and are by no means zoos," explains Diski.

Rainbow Tours (020-7226 1004; rainbowtours.co.uk) offers a seven-night self-drive itinerary to see cheetah and other big cats in Namibia, taking in Okonjima Lodge, which is home to the conservation charity the AfriCat Foundation, where you can meet rescued cheetah and leopard. The trip costs from £1,590 per person covering two nights at Okonjima's very comfortable Bush Camp; four nights in two separate camps in Etosha National Park; car rental; many meals and activities, and return flights from Gatwick to Windhoek.

Or visit the De Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Centre near Johannesburg as part of the Wildlife Behind the Scenes group holiday arranged by Peregrine Adventures (0844 736 0170; peregrineadventures.com). With an emphasis on learning about conservation, the trip also takes in the Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve further north in South Africa, and a remote private game reserve in Botswana, home to lion, giraffe, elephant and more. The holiday costs from £2,235 per person, which includes an optional conservation contribution of £140 and covers accommodation, most meals, all game activities and all land transport. International air travel costs extra.

How else can I help?

Sign up for a volunteering holiday with African Conservation Experience (0845 5200 888; conser vationafrica.net). Placements of two to 12 weeks are currently available on the new Zingela Predator Project,u o based on a game reserve in South Africa's Limpopo Province. Volunteers help to track and monitor cheetah, leopard and brown hyena, collecting data on GPS positions to determine movement patterns. A two-week placement costs from £2,190, which includes return flights from Heathrow to Johannesburg, accommodation in a tented camp, and all meals.

What about the biggest cat of all?

In December, The Independent reported that there may be as few as 4,000 tigers remaining in the wild, down from an estimated 100,000 a century ago. But the article was also recording possible new grounds for optimism, with some conservation measures in India starting to have real impact.

The five remaining tiger subspecies (there were once eight) are spread across Asia, from the Russian Far East through Bhutan and Burma, to Vietnam and the jungles of Sumatra. India, though, is the heartland of the tiger and holds the biggest population of these big cats, even if, according to a recent scientific census, this is down to an estimated 1,411. And India remains your best bet for a trip to see one of these majestic beasts.

The Sunderbans, a watery area encompassing southern parts of Bengal and Bangladesh, holds one of the highest concentrations of tigers (man-eaters they are, too). But the vegetation and terrain here make the chances of sightings extremely slim. The game reserves of central India provide better conditions, with the parks of Madhya Pradesh presenting some of the best options.

India specialist Greaves (020-7487 9111; greavesindia.com) offers a private seven-day trip staying at super-stylish game lodges that are a joint venture between Taj Hotels and Africa wildlife specialists & Beyond. The holiday includes one night at Panna National Park in the Vindhya hill range of northern Madhya Pradesh (leopard, wolf and hyena live here, as well as tiger) and three nights slightly further south at Bandhavgarh National Park, which is renowned for its tiger-viewing opportunities. The cost from £2,775 per person covers flights from Heathrow to Delhi, all transport in India, all accommodation, meals on safari, and all game guidance.

Alternatively, for £1,685 per person, Greaves offers a more cost-sensitive seven-day tour taking in the temples of Khajuraho and staying at a slightly less chic lodge in the Bandhavgarh National Park (with inclusions as above).

The little-known Satpura National Park in Madhya Pradesh is set to be put on the mainstream map next month with the opening of an elegant new lodge, Forsyths. Satpura covers about 520 square kilometres, and together with two adjoining parks, forms the Pachmarhi Biosphere Reserve, providing a rich environment for tiger, leopard, sambar and more. Real Holidays (020-7359 3938; realholidays.co.uk) offers a nine-day private trip with five nights at Forsyths. The price from £2,020 per person includes flights from Heathrow to Delhi, transfers, and all accommodation.

Travel companies arranging group trips to the game parks of India include Explore (0845 013 1539; explore.co.uk) and The Travelling Naturalist (01305 267994; naturalist.co.uk).

Other Asian beauties?

Secretive and supremely elegant, the snow leopard lives in the mountains of Central Asia. Scientists report that between 3,500 and 7,000 remain in the wild, the estimates remaining broad due to the highly elusive nature of this cat. These are solitary creatures, their smoky grey fur with black spots enabling them to blend perfectly with their rocky habitats.

Naturetrek (01962 733051; naturetrek.co.uk) offers a 14-day trip in search of snow leopard in the wilds of north-east India's province of Ladakh, departing January 2010. The cost of £2,595 per person includes flights from Heathrow to Delhi and onward to Leh, accommodation, most meals, and expert guidance. This is an adventure rather than a luxurious trip, and Naturetrek stresses that flexibility is key, with the itinerary likely to change according to where snow leopard have been sighted.

Take me to jaguar country

It is thought that around 15,000 jaguar remain in the wild in the Americas, their habitat stretching from the southern US to Argentina. Finding them, though, is a tall order. Jaguars are well camouflaged, mostly in coats of tan and orange with black spots, although some are so dark they appear to be black and spotless. Unlike most other cats, they are reasonably good swimmers, and eat fish and turtle as well as large land animals. The greatest concentration of jaguar is in the Amazon Basin, but these splendid creatures are, very relatively speaking, easier to see in the wetlands of Brazil's Northern Pantanal.

Last Frontiers (01296 653000; lastfrontiers.com) suggests a seven-day Brazil itinerary, with three nights in the Northern Pantanal where accommodation is at the Araras Eco Lodge. Even if jaguars fail to show in the vicinity, you'll see plenty of birds, monkeys and possibly river otters. The holiday costs from £3,363, including flights from Heathrow to São Paulo, onward connections and full-board accommodation.

Any other large felines?

Cougar (also known as puma and mountain lion) range across a vast territory from Canada to southern parts of Chile. There is a particularly high concentration on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. Viewing opportunities are limited, partly because cougar are elusive and partly because they are often hunted and shot owing to their attacks on livestock and even humans.

Puma, black panther (or jaguar) and lynx are said to stalk around Britain. Sightings of mysterious big cats are sporadically reported across the country (see britishbigcats.org), particularly on Exmoor, Bodmin Moor and even in Surrey and Berkshire. However, big-cat viewing in Britain hasn't – yet – taken off as a popular option for a wildlife holiday.

At home in the Masai Mara

By Jonathan Scott

After more than 30 years working and living in Kenya's Masai Mara, I still maintain that if I only had one day in Africa, I would spend it in the Masai Mara. It has such varied habitat that it provides ideal conditions for many species of animals – so there is abundant prey for predators.

The Mara is in a high-rainfall part of the ecosystem – that is why the migration of wildebeest and zebra heads north into the Mara in the dry season (June/July to mid-October). But very importantly, the Mara has many resident species such as buffalo, topi, impala, warthog, which are important prey for the predators when the migration heads south again – lion and leopard are territorial and can only survive if they have adequate resident prey to feed on.

In addition, the Masai Mara has become increasingly open in the last 30 years, due to the impact of a large elephant population, dry-season fires, and the huge number of wildebeest that flood into the area each year, trampling the seedlings and eating back the long grass.

The loss of the wooded areas and the opening up of the grasslands makes the Mara one of the most accessible wildlife areas to drive around – and the open landscape makes it easy to spot predators such as lion and cheetah from miles away.

I was based at Mara River Camp from 1977-82, and Kichwa Tembo from 1982-92; we now base ourselves at Governor's Camp when in the Mara. When we first started filming Big Cat Diary in 1996, we already knew that the Mara was the easiest place to watch and film all three big cats that live here: lion, leopard and cheetah. The Mara is only 1,500 square kilometres – one-eighth the size of the vast Serengeti National Park in Tanzania – yet it receives more than 300,000 visitors a year. If you can't find the big cats yourself, then just look for a cluster of vehicles to point you in the right direction, or animals such as wildebeest, zebra or topi standing bolt upright, all pointing you in the direction that a predator has been spotted.

The experience we try to share with people on Big Cat Diary is the same one that visitors can enjoy for themselves by taking a safari to the Mara. Go with or hire a top-class guide – this is invaluable – the best safari camps have excellent guides who are out every day looking for all the things that visitors want to see. They know the area intimately, know the quickest route to where a predator has been found, and can read the signs pointing them in the right direction – the sights and sounds that will reveal to them where a predator is located (the alarm call of jackal may indicate a leopard on the move). Be out and about as early as permissible – before the sun is up, preferably, so you can find your quarry in the best light for photography, and because it is easier to locate lions and leopards when it is cool – and stay out as late as you can. Lion and leopard spend much of the day doing very little, preferring to lie up in the shade if possible. Night game drives are great for tracking down predators such as lion, leopard and hyena as they are more active at night because it is cool and less stressful for them to move about.

I have been truly blessed to follow my dream, which was always to live in the African bush and watch wildlife – particularly big cats and particularly leopards.

Jonathan and Angela Scott's book, 'Stars of Big Cat Diary', in collaboration with Simon King and Saba Douglas-Hamilton, is due to be published by Evans Mitchell Books in September

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