Wildcats are the ultimate predators. In a long line and amazing diversity of carnivores, wildcats are the epitome of a skilled, strong, stealthy and agile predator. There are 36 species of wildcats on Earth found on 5 continents, ranging in size from little more than a house cat in weight to the largest living felid, the Siberian tiger, topping 525 lbs! Three of these will take centre stage, Africa’s big cats, in a constant struggle for survival in one of the wildest places on Earth.
CHEETAH (Acinonyx jubatus)
While lions are powerful and leopards stealthy, the cheetah carves out its niche with unparalleled speed. Cheetahs are the fastest land animals on Earth, racing to a top speed of 114 km/hr. They could easily out-accelerate a Porsche and are able to reach 0-100 km/hr in about 1.8 seconds! Every inch of a cheetah is adapted for speed; their long tail for high speed balance, their large heart and lungs for processing oxygen and their flexible spine to name just a few. Cheetahs however have to sacrifice much of their strength for this speed and therefore are unable to defend their kills from other carnivores like lions, hyenas and even several vultures. Cheetahs concentrate on swift smaller antelope, favouring the Thompson’s gazelle (which reach a top speed of about 80-85 km/hr). Cheetahs are a threatened species with less than 11,500 left in the wild, a third of which live in Namibia.
LEOPARD (Panthera pardus)
Sometimes referred to as the ‘Prince of Stealth’, leopards possess many of the characteristics that are essential for top predators; cunning, strength, stealth, agility, intelligence and adaptability. Leopards are far-ranging, in fact the most so west-east of any large felid. They inhabit west, central, east and southern Africa, into the middle east, India, Pakistan, south-east Asia and even into the far Siberian forests of Russia! They can survive in rainforest, desert, savanna, woodland, boreal forest, deltas and mountains. And although (especially in Africa) they concentrate on medium-sized antelope, such as impala, gazelles and duikers, they can take a multitude of varying prey including hares, monkeys, snakes, lizards and even the young of zebra and giraffe. Leopards are known for their ability to cache their prey up a tree, out of reach of other carnivore competitors. This indeed takes unbelievable strength and skill to accomplish. Leopards still face many threats, one of the worst of which is poaching for their magnificently beautiful fur. Leopards can also be melanistic (or entirely black) and this colouration is most often found in dense rainforests.
LION (Panthera leo)
Often a symbol of Africa, power, wildness and even royalty, lions are magnificent indeed. The second largest of the big cats, lions show a great deal of sexual dimorphism, with males being much heavier than females and sporting an elegant mane of neck and shoulder fur. This is known to impress females, but also provides males with an added level of protection in their brief, but often powerful and savage battles for prides. Lions are the only fully social wildcat living in prides that can number over twenty individuals in some cases. Lions are apex predators, and although they do compete with other big cats and spotted hyenas, lions have carved out a niche at the top of the food chain. Lions are known for their populations in Africa (now numbering less than 25,000), but they also do inhabit Asia, in the tiny remaining wilderness of the Gir forest in India.