The Secret Life of Cats

By on May 31, 2015

In Big Cats

Image-by-Tamlin-Wightman

The air is vacant, frozen. Only three things exist: the lion, the safari vehicle and me. This is the feeling of time standing still. And fear. My fear. Obviously. Today, this lion is king. His gaze is locked on me. It doesn’t waiver until a younger cub breaks his focus, brings us back to the world.

Lets Kamogelo, my ranger at Zarafa Camp, comes back into view. The cub has lost his way, he explains, has wandered too far from his mother and his pride. Here in the wilderness of the Selinda Reserve in Botswana, the sun is falling fast on our evening game drive, casting shadows across the cub and elder. Without his pride’s protection, Lets says, the cub may not survive the night.

Image by Tamlin Wightman

Image-by-Tamlin-Wightman-2

In the last light of day, the little lion strides up a sandy hill and exhales a long moan into the cool dusk air, calling out to his family. It is heartbreaking. The older male and his partner, lying some distance away, have no interest in the wanderer. He is not one of them. Not in terms of blood. They will not protect him from the evils of the wild.

Image-by-Tamlin-Wightman

It is in this moment that my thoughts drift to Munich, my Manx, and the brilliance of her breed. Not sunsets, G&Ts and warm towels. But my Manx, Munich, at home in her handmade felt bubble bed. The domestic cat, considered today to be the most popular pet in the world, has cleverly managed to bypass all the less desirable qualities of the lives of their wilder counterparts. Cleverly and of their own volition, as it turns out.

An expert on the subject, Dr. Leslie Lyons of the University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, says:

“We say cats adapted themselves to us rather than the other way around. As humans became farmers, we started a civilization. And civilization has grain stores and refuse piles, two things that draw rodents. Cats started coming closer to households to eat the rodents, filling the niche that humans developed. Cats were the first to come close to humans. We tolerated them because they ate the rodents, and cats tolerated humans because we provided food.”

Image by Tamlin Wightman 2

But of course, as much as we fawn over them as pets, our Manxes and Tabbies, our Persians and Raggamuffins (yes, that is the name of an actual breed of cat) don’t evoke the same awe in us as The Big Cats. They don’t make time stand still. Not compared to a lone female leopard slinked along a jackalberry branch, mere metres away, her stomach fat with new life and her rosetted tail hanging from the tree like ivy…

Safaris present you with these frozen moments, a glimpse into the wild, at both its dangers and miracles. They let you enter the secret life of the cat, not the cat of the popular Nat Geo documentary, but the other “untrainable lazy bundle of fur”. The Big Cats. And their own world of revealing personalities and talents.

Discover this world below, through our Big Cat experience, or on a safari of your own.

Images Above: by Tamlin Wightman. Images below: as credited

The Leopard

The Best Places To See The Big Cats

  • Leopards are notoriously elusive creatures but the population in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve rejects this stereotype by inviting game vehicles to witness their daily lives. It is common on game drives in Londolozi to spend hours in the company of these normally shy cats.
  • Boasting one of the highest population of lions in the world, the Masai Mara in Kenya more than deserves its reputation for being big cat country. It is also one of the last wild frontiers that caters for cheetahs exacting needs, with wide open spaces and tall grass. Leopards also have affinity for this part of the world, with a penchant for the landscape’s rockier terrains. Explore the region from Mara Plains and Ol Donyo.
  • Madikwe Private Game Reserve is one of the world’s great conservation success stories. The reserve’s reputation as a cheetah sanctuary recently gained muster when two females were relocated to the territory, bringing the population to an impressive seven. Witness the grace of the big cats at Morukuru.

An Evolutionary Masterpiece

Morukuru

Unlike lions and leopards, cheetahs are diurnal (active during the day). Their distinctive black tear-marks prevent the agile cats from being blinded by the sun during the chase. Despite their alarming speed, hunts prove successful around fifty percent of the time. Even when they land the kill, they are often powerless to the whims of stronger predators – such as lions and hyenas – who rob them of their hard-earned meat. | Image: Morukuru by Ryan Rapaport

The Cheetah

Being the fastest animal on the planet doesn’t just happen. Evolution has engineered cheetahs into running machines. Their artillery includes slender builds, flexible spines, big nostrils, increased lung capacity and enlarged hearts. As a collective these crafted attributes allow cheetahs to accelerate from 0 to 60 mph (96 kph) in three seconds. Although speed is a cheetah’s greatest ally, it is not without its downfalls: it takes these slight cats around 30 minutes to recover after a sprint – a necessity that leaves them vulnerable to theft. | Image: Mara Plains by Beverly Joubert

Dynamics of the Pride

Brotherly Love on the Selinda

Defying the solitary nature of their greater felidae family, lions form tight-knit groups called prides. The collective usually consists of related lionesses, cubs and young adults. Distinguishable by their glorious mains, males are transitionary members of the pride, holding their position only as long as they hold onto the territory. Driven by a desire to sow their seeds, rogue males enter competitors’ territories to challenge the dominant male. | Image: Botswana by Beverly Joubert

Zarafa Camp by Tamlin Wightman

The reward for repeatedly warding off vagabond males is the prized rights to mate with the females. If the lone male is successful, the pride’s cubs are at risk of being killed. The reason for this seeming unnecessary brutality is that when a lioness is weaning the previous male’s cubs, she cannot fall pregnant with a new litter. Killing the cubs is a solution to this procreative obstacle. While female cubs tend to remain with the pride, when young males reach a certain age they are ousted from their family unit – sent into a dangerous existence where they will have to feed and fend for themselves. | Image: Zarafa Camp by Tamlin Wightman

A Lion’s Share

The Lion King

Lest you forget that you’re in Africa’s wild heart, a lion roaring into the dark night will bring you back to the precious present. These apex predators often sound closer than they are because they normally roar at night when the air is thinner and the noise travels further. On particularly still nights, their calls resonate as much as five miles away. Roaring is predominantly territorial although it can be used between pride members to reconnect if they have been separated. | Image: Londolozi

Gorah

Although both male and females roar, males tend to be more vocal than their counterparts. In order to hold onto a territory and protect their pride, males often form coalitions which consist of anywhere between two and seven lions. These caucuses have been known to synchronise their roars as a show of united force. | Image: Gorah Elephant Camp by Ryan Rapaport

Morukuru 2

Catching wind of their might, any rogue male in their vicinity will think twice before launching an attack. Though nomad lions drift in and out of resident males’ territories, they have a habit of remaining quiet until they wish to challenge the dominant male for the territory. | Image: Morukuru by Ryan Rapaport

 What is your experience of the big cats? Share your stories with us below.