It is hard to describe the feeling when one is lucky enough to watch a lion kill, a cheetah hurtling across the savannah after a jumping springbok, or a leopard lazing on a branch in a giant jackalberry tree. Velvet coats paired with fierce teeth make for spectacular safari viewing.
The Kruger Park is home to a wide range of cats, from the small genet through to the enormous lion, and many in-between. If you’re lucky, you may spot a good few during a safari at Kruger.
Lion (Panthera leo)
Lions together, live in prides. The leader of the pride changes, but the pride itself remains cohesive, and under the control of the females. These females, often related, share jobs in the pride, from hunting to the raising of their cubs. Each pride has a specific territory and vicious fights break out if another pride tries to encroach.
Mostly active at night, they can usually be found where the big herds of game – their prey – hang out. Hunting at night, they usually rest in the shade during the day, but are sometimes spotted at dawn and dusk.
Unlike the speedy cheetah, lions can’t run fast. This is unsurprising considering that males can weigh over 200 kg, the females slightly less. Thus, their hunting habits rely more on clever planning than speed. While they do sometimes hunt alone, their ‘two-pronged’ attack is often more successful. Here, one lion – usually a male – approaches the prey from upwind, driving it toward an ambush – usually females – behind it.
If the first attack doesn’t work, lions will seldom chase their prey very far, but they will – and do – have protracted fights to the death, especially with buffalo, if their prey is grounded but not dead with the first bite.
Africa is not for sissies.
Once dead, the male eats first, the females second, and the cubs get whatever’s left. After that, the scavengers – who’ve been waiting patiently in the wings for up to 24 hours – come in and clean up, most commonly vultures, hyenas and jackals.
Contrary to popular belief, these incredibly rare lions are not albino, but rather a genetic rarity. Initially only found in the Timbavati area, a cub was seen in 2014, a new member of the Satara pride, heralding much happiness.
Recent studies done on these blue-eyed beauties have shown that, contrary to initial scientific thought, the white lions hunt just as successfully as their tawny brothers and sisters.
Tabloid Lion News
Yip, you read correctly. The ‘all-boys club’ made up of six young male lions in the Gomondwane region made it into the UK’s Daily Mail, when one of their reporters spotted this crew on safari in Kruger.
Thought to be made up of related males – brothers and cousins – groups like this travel through territories looking for suitable females to ‘settle down’ with, fighting any males who happen to get in their way.
Where to Find Lions
Lions are most commonly sighted in central and southern Kruger, especially in the regions of Crocodile Bridge, Lower Sabie, Skukuza and Satara.
Leopard (Panthera pardus)
The next-biggest cat, with the male weighing in at over 60 kg, is the leopard. These exquisite creatures are the shyest of the big cats, preferring their own company and hanging out in dense bush during the daylight hours, emerging only in the late afternoon to hunt for dinner.
This they usually do by stalking, pouncing and killing with a swift bite to the neck. They then usually carry their prey – often heavier than themselves – into a tree, allowing them to snack over a couple of days away from the snarling grins of the scavengers.
An odd habit of leopards is that they often lick the fur off their prey, before eating.
Here, a lion stalks and jumps on a leopard in Kruger. A rare sighting to see these two creatures together!
Where to Find Leopard
Leopards are found, if you’re lucky, throughout Kruger, preferring dense riverine forest – especially along the Sabie River – and rocky outcrops.
Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)
Lean and wily, the cheetah is built for speed and can run at speeds over 110 km/h. Weighing around 50 kg, cheetahs use their speed for hunting, catching their prey offguard and then running at it, full-speed. The prey – usually antelope – try to lose the cheetah by zig-zagging but, often, lose the battle as the cheetah uses his tail to stabilise himself.
The killing bit is not quite as effective as that of the lion and leopard, due to the cheetah’s small jaws and it takes up to half an hour for their prey to die. The only trouble a cheetah has, is that its stamina is pretty low. It can only run full speed for about 250 m and needs to have a rest after the energy-sapping hunt. Unfortunately, during this rest, the cheetah often loses its prey to lions or scavengers. Very unfair after all that effort.
Where to Find Cheetah
Central Kruger is the favourite spot for cheetah sightings, and around Lower Sabie and the Crocodile River.
Cheetah or Leopard?
It is not uncommon for visitors unused to the bush to confuse leopard and cheetah, due to their spotted golden pelts. They do, however, differ significantly.
Leopards are far more powerfully built, with muscular limbs and a bigger, more cat-like head. Cheetahs are slender and gangly, with a long body and smaller, almost dog-like head. The leopard’s spots are big and rosette-like, while the cheetah has small spots and a very distinct black line on either side of the nose (tear lines).
If you get really close to them – something we don’t recommend! – you will find that leopard have retractable claws, like a house cat, and cheetahs don’t, more like a dog.
Most visible though, is their habitats, leopards are shy and like dense bush and cheetahs, not-so-much, hanging out on open savannah.
Caracal (Felis caracal)
With their distinctive tufted ears and gorgeous red-brown coats, caracals are solitary night-time hunters. These exquisite animals are seldom spotted as they are secretive and solitary. Also, in contradiction to their beauty, they can be very aggressive.
Civet (Viverra civetta)
These guys remind one of a badger, due to their distinctive grey faces with black and white markings. And their markings are what make them stand out: bands of black, grey and white, with black legs.
They, too, are shy and solitary, therefore a sighting of one is extremely special.
Serval (Felis serval)
With their slender build and golden coat interspersed with black stripes and spots, the serval reminds one of cheetahs, but smaller and with different markings. They’re known for their long legs in comparison to their body size. Basically, they’re the supermodels of the feline world.
Genets (Genetta genetta and Genetta tigrina)
The smaller cats of Kruger – genets – come in two versions. While the Large-Spotted Genet has black spots with a rusty centre and a black-tipped tail, the Small-Spotted Genet has purely black spots and a white-tipped tail.
How to Behave When You Meet a Cat in Kruger
There are often stories in the news of visitors to the park (or to other parks and rehab centres) being injured by animals. This is due to not knowing how to behave when coming across a wild cat.
And that’s exactly what needs to be remembered. While they may look cute and fluffy, these animals are WILD. And you are on their turf.
Humans are not their prey, but they have a natural instinct to fight or flee if they feel that they are in any way in danger. Following a few basic rules both your and their safety can be assured while viewing cats on a safari drive:
- Quiet! While the animals have become accustomed to the sound of the vehicle, human noise will disturb them, either making them run away, or get angry. If you need to communicate at all, do so in a whisper.
- In most reserves, animals have become habituated to the vehicles used – and their shape. Do not stand up or dangle arms or legs out of the vehicle, as this will frighten the animals and may result in them retreating or attacking.
- Never try to interfere – in any way – with the animals you encounter. This includes trying to change their behaviour or position for a good photo shot and feeding them. The feeding of wild animals is absolutely prohibited for both yours and the animal’s safety.
These gorgeous creatures are incredible to see in their natural environment and, as mentioned above, are mainly active at night or late afternoon/early morning. If you have the chance, be sure to go the dawn and/or dusk drives – and night drives in the Greater Kruger Park – to increase your chance of spotting them! Speak to one of our knowledgeable ABS consultants to plan your dream trip!