Spot the Cats

18 September 2014 | The Mara |

Duncan Butchart ponders about what animals people really want to see when on an African safari and decides that the ultimate prize is in fact spots on the coat of a leopard or cheetah

When it comes right down to it, most people would probably regard an African safari as a bit disappointing if they came away without having seen a lion or an elephant. These two beasts are at the very top of the predator and herbivore hierarchy. Both are diminishing in number and range throughout Africa, and are iconic symbols for the continent and its conservation.

Lions and elephants also occur in Asia, however, albeit a different species of pachyderm and a tiny isolated population of big tawny cats in India’s Gir Forest.

If you were looking for a uniquely African mammal, then the Giraffe stands head and shoulders above the rest, with the zebra perhaps in second place. Like Australia’s kangaroos, and China’s giant pandas, these animals occur nowhere else. Strange then, that more visitors to Africa’s wild places don’t get more excited about seeing giraffe and zebra. I guess it is partly because they are usually common and conspicuous wherever they occur.

Lions and elephants can be easy to find too – especially here in the open country of the Maasai Mara where visibility is so incredible. So if your chances of seeing and photographing elephants, lions, giraffes and zebra are so high, what species are really most desired by eco-travelers?

For some, it may be the rhino (only the black rhino occurs in the Mara) since this species is hurtling towards extinction with such a price on its horned head. The buffalo, although a member of the so-called ‘Big Five’ doesn’t really crack it for most people – it really is just a big black cow, albeit a moody and unpredictable one.

What people really want, I think, are spots! And those spots should be on the coat of a leopard or a cheetah. These are the ultimate prize animals of an African safari. To encounter one of these elegant and often elusive predators is always going to be the highlight.

Cheetahs are active by day (ecologists call this diurnal) and like flat, open country so the Mara is truly perfect for them. Leopards are supposedly creatures of the night – but they regularly flaunt this nocturnal label in the Mara – showing up whenever and wherever they fancy. Both prey mostly on medium-sized antelope as well as anything smaller that they happen upon and can overpower. For cheetahs this often means a hare or a francolin, for leopards a squirrel or a baboon.

I’ve had some truly memorable encounters with these two magnificent spotted predators in the Mara and other parts of Africa, and can only hope that you’ll get up close and personal with them during your stay at Angama Mara.


AUTHOR: Duncan Butchart

Duncan Butchart is an all-round naturalist who has worked in conservation and ecotourism projects in eleven African countries. He has authored and illustrated several books on wildlife and has written numerous popular articles for periodicals such as ‘Travel Africa’ and ‘African Birding’. In 2014, he received an Honorary Doctorate from the University of the Witwatersrand for his interactive work with African safari guides and his contribution to the conservation of vultures and other species. He never goes anywhere without his camera, notepad or sketchbook, relaying his observations through illustrated articles and blog postings.

Leave a Reply
Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked*