One of the many thrills on an African safari is finding the cats. But like any element of nature, they are not predictable.
All species in the Felidae family differ somewhat, yet they have similarities as well. Most cats, for example, are solitary and territorial…except the lions who have prides with elaborate social lifestyles.
All the felines are carnivores and mainly eat warm-blooded vertebrates. Small cats prey primarily on rodents, birds, and small mammals; while big cats prefer antelopes and other ungulates.
But when the opportunity arises, any size cat will hunt and kill whatever it wants.
Does this big daddy look like he cares about convention?
Although we often think of the big cats as frightening and formidable, the small cats are also fierce. No creature on the African savannah is soft and cuddly.
Cubs were cute, but never to be touched.
Some cats are nocturnal, others are diurnal. But at mid-day under the ruthless African sun, many of them rest in the shade.
We always found lions in the morning after they’d had a night of hunting. Often they were nursing cuts or gashes sustained in the night. Usually their bellies were noticeably full, and the cat was sleepy.
But we also found them alert and hunting at all times of the day.
Lions, like most predators, prey on defenseless baby mammals. One day we watched with trepidation as a just-born wildebeest calf wandered over to a lioness, thought she was its mother. Wildebeest are not too smart.
We watched for 20 minutes as this baby wildebeest pestered the lioness for nursing and care. The lioness, annoyed, repeatedly shirked the baby off.
Then eventually the lioness snapped at the wildebeest, chased it, scared it off. But she never once went after it to kill.
Leopards, unlike many of the big cats, can usually be found in trees. A cat of great strength, leopards often kill their prey and cache them in trees. With their powerful jaws, they drag the carcass into a tree where they will guard and eat it for a few days.
But leopards weren’t always in the trees.
Cheetahs, the fastest land animal on earth, are usually found in tall grass, stalking.
They sneak up on their prey, get within sprinting range, and then streak off in dramatic pursuit.
But one day we came across a pair of cheetahs lazily enjoying the sun on top of this kopje (large rock).
Night game drives often revealed a different world than in the day. But several of what I thought were cats, were not really cats at all.
Two cat-like mammals we encountered at night were the genet and civit. They are not, however, in the feline family; they are both in the Viverridae family, more closely related to mongoose.
The cats’ stealth, beauty, and ferocious activities lend excitement to an African safari, but the unpredictability of these wild animals is equally as thrilling. It’s what makes you think at night as you doze off to a distant lion’s roar.
Written by Jet Eliot.
Photos by Athena Alexander.