There are certain families of animal that I’ll always make an extra effort to see. As far as mammals are concerned, all of them hold my interest, but there are a few families in particular that interest me, and cats is most definitely one of them.
My first sighting of a wild species of cat was also the rarest, and one that took a lot of effort. It was the Scottish Wildcat which, after numerous trips to Scotland and a lot of time in the field, I managed to see on two occasions in different locations, as well as capture some crude images of one on a strategically placed trail camera. It is the UK’s rarest mammal by far, and one of the worlds rarest cats – a good one to get ticked off the list first! I’d love to get better quality pictures of the Scottish Wildcat, and one day I expect I’ll have another go.
The UK has no other wild felines so it was inevitable that future sightings would take place abroad. Costa Rica would be my next opportunity. Whilst Costa Rica is home to six species of cat, it’s not necessarily the sort of country you’d choose first with a view to seeing some of them. Possible sightings would include Jaguar, Puma, Ocelot, Jaguarundi, Oncilla and Margay. Before I’d even got there, I was realistic about my chances, and therefore decided to do all I could to maximise my chances by effectively extending my stay to over a year, by leaving a trail camera behind long after I’d left. I picked a location that I felt yielded the biggest likelihood of being used by cats and hoped for the best. I received periodic batches of photos from the trail camera, and on the very first batch I was really pleased to see Ocelots were using the trail I’d chosen. A later batch showed a Puma. By the time the camera was rendered no longer capable of working due to over a year in often 100% humidity, it had captured two Puma and a number of Ocelot, but it was apparent that, at least for now, I would have to wait to see more of Central America’s cats.
Germany would be my next opportunity. It’s a place I’ve visited a number of times over the last couple of years or so, and will no doubt be making many more visits. There are a couple of species to be seen there, and fortunately the area I visit happens to be near to a large forest which is home to both species – the European Wildcat and the Eurasian Lynx. So far I haven’t put any serious effort into seeing either species, but I’m hopeful that in the coming years I’ll be able to set some camera traps.
Heading east to Sri Lanka where there is the prospect of finding four species of cat – Leopard, Rusty-spotted Cat, Fishing Cat and Jungle Cat. Despite spending time at night and at dawn looking, I didn’t see any of the smaller cats – just paw-prints. I was hopeful of seeing Fishing Cat, given the habitats of some of the places I stayed, but it was not to be on this trip. What was lacking in variety of feline species seen was compensated by the quality and frequency of views of Leopard. The Sri Lankan sub-species tends to be slightly larger than the nominate species. I was lucky to connect with one early on in the trip in the north of the country, and was able to spend a good twenty or so minutes watching it at close range. Later on, and further south, I had multiple sightings on various days. Although most of them were distant, or partially obscured, one encounter in particular was really special – a pair of cats in full view on rocky terrain which made for some fairly striking photos.
Heading south of the equator to South Africa promised further encounters with cats, including some of the most iconic species. In total there were seven species that could potentially be seen – Lion, Leopard, Cheetah, Caracal, Serval, Black-footed Cat and African Wildcat. After two weeks of searching I was able to find four of them. First was the Lion. A pride near Skukuza was too distant for photography, but otherwise they provided good views for my first sighting. Throughout the time spent there, I ended up losing count of Lion sightings and was lucky enough to have some very close encounters. I had three Leopard encounters – one near the Olifants River which walked right behind my car after I’d guessed where it would emerge following a distant sighting of it walking towards the road. Even if it hadn’t been directly behind the car, it would have been too close for my camera to focus. Two further encounters occurred near Punda Maria, and in all likelihood were the same cat. I was able to take a couple of brief photos at night before it failed to prey upon an unsuspecting but alert Springhare, and on a separate evening I filmed it heading to a waterhole to drink, surrounded by African Elephants and Fiery-necked Nightjars – an unforgettable scene. Cheetah was a lucky encounter – very distant eye-shine at night piqued my interest, and after stacking spotlights and my camera flash, it was possible to photograph what turned out to be a family of four cats. Finally, while staying at the Satara Rest Camp I was able to see and photograph African Wildcat whilst on foot and at relatively close quarters, as well as capture a further cat on trail camera. Prior to that point, I’d had to make do with a frustratingly brief night-time sighting whilst trying to find a Honey Badger.
At the time of writing, the list of cats that I’ve been able to photograph is as follows, in chronological order:
Scottish Wildcat – Felis sylvestris grampia
Ocelot – Leopardus pardalis
Puma – Puma concolor
Sri Lankan Leopard – Panthera pardus kotiya
Lion – Panthera leo
African Wildcat – Felis lybica
Leopard – Panthera pardus
Cheetah – Acinonyx jubatus