Have you ever wondered what are the most elusive big cats and whether it’s possible to see them in the wild?
From the desolate forests of Siberia, through the arid African savannah to the remote wilderness of Patagonia, almost every corner of the world hosts a different species of wild cat.
Spotting them, though, is no easy task. Masters of camouflage and skilled ambush hunters, big cats are of the elusive kind.
Here’s my selection of five of the most elusive cats in the world and where to see them in their natural habitat.
The most magnificent of all, the undisputed king of the Indian jungle doesn’t need any introduction. Classified as endangered species on the IUCN list, tigers are divided into five different sub-species.
The healthiest one in numbers, the Bengal Tiger has seen a growth in its population thanks to tireless efforts by various conservation initiatives.
The best places to see the Royal Bengal Tiger in all its splendor is the central Indian landscape and its many pristine national parks. Kanha, Pench, Bandhavgarh, Tadoba are amongst the most famous reserves where you can hope to get a glimpse of the striped beast while on a jungle safari.
There is nothing comparable to the thrill of tracking a wild tiger, hearing alarm calls of the ever-alert prey species, witnessing the jungle coming alive under the nonchalant stroll of the majestic cat.
When to go: most of the Indian parks are closed during monsoon (from 15 June to 15 October approximately). Every season is different and beautiful to explore the different tiger habitats. Go in peak winter for chilly, misty mornings and dreamy landscapes. If the number of tiger sightings is your priority, travel during summer, when the scorching hot temperatures lead the cats to cool down for hours in the waterholes.
If seeing a tiger in the wild is your dream, have a look at this article!
2 – SOUTH AMERICAN JAGUAR
Different from the leopard because of the peculiar pattern and shape of its rosettes, the jaguar is the third largest wild cat in the world.
One of the best places to see jaguars in the wild, Brazil’s Pantanal riverscape is on the bucket list of many wildlife lovers and photographers.
Famous for its amazing biodiversity, this landscape is best visited by boat safari. Jaguars frequent the banks of the rivers in search of their most coveted prey, the caiman. Hunting scenes are not infrequently sighted by the amazed eyes of the travelers that venture there.
A vast wetland the size of France, the Pantanal is also home to more than 100 species of birds and over 200 species of mammals.
When to go: The best time to visit the Pantanal is from July to October, when the rainfall is low and animals can often be found around the shrinking lakes and river banks.
The company Naturetrek organizes regular wildlife tours to the Pantanal.
3 – INDIAN LEOPARD
If the tiger is fire lighting up the forest, the leopard is pure gold, smoothly melting into a thick fluid that elegantly vanishes like a vision from a celestial world.
Extremely elusive creatures, leopards are harder to track than its bigger, striped nemesis with which they tend to share the territory, not without competition.
The best places to admire the spotted beauty in India are Jhalana, a wildlife sanctuary on the outskirts of Jaipur, Rajasthan, the forest of Pench, central India, sublimed by Kipling’s The Jungle Book, and the Kabini sanctuary in the southern state of Karnataka.
When to go: Most of the Indian protected areas are closed during monsoon (15 June to 15 October approximately). Because of better visibility, chances of seeing leopards through the undergrowth are at their highest in summer, when the vegetation dries up.
4 – SNOW LEOPARD
The ghost of the Himalaya, nothing can beat the elusiveness of this big cat and the hardship that one has to endure when on an expedition to the remote areas it inhabits.
Classed as vulnerable on the IUCN list, the snow leopard faces similar threats as the tiger.
For a chance of spotting a snow leopard, you’ll have to head to India and most precisely to the Himalayan regions of Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh, as this enigmatic animal is found at altitudes as high as 3500m.
A vulnerable species, snow leopard numbers have declined by 20% in the last 20 years due to poaching, habitat loss and overhunting of its primary prey species.
Ladakh’s unique landscape deserves a trip on its own, with its bare mountains and its remote Buddhist monasteries. Gentle acclimatization is key to this kind of expedition, as the possibility of suffering from altitude sickness is a real risk to be taken into account. That’s why it’s important to plan to be out for at least 10-12 days.
Snow leopards expeditions are also popular in the Spiti valley of Himachal Pradesh.
Other species inhabit this mountain regions such as the ibex, the Himalayan wolf, the Tibetan sand fox and the golden eagle.
When to go: Snow leopard sightings are at their best in winter, from December to March. This is the time of the year when their prey come down to the valley for food, followed by the hungry cats.
5 – AFRICAN LION
Once roaming most of Africa and part of Asia and Europe, African lions have today lost 94% of their historic range and can be found in parts of sub-Saharan Africa.
The IUCN estimates that less than 25000 individuals remain today in the wild, hence classifying them as vulnerable.
Lions are the only big cats that live in groups, called prides. This characteristic behaviour makes the tracking relatively easier and gives the photographer plenty of composition opportunities.
Masai Mara National Reserve, in Kenya, is undoubtedly one of the best places in the world to see lions as well as the Mecca of the wildlife photographer.
Once a year, during the Great Migration, millions of herbivores such as wildebeests migrate from the dryness of Serengeti, in Tanzania, to Masai Mara, in Kenya, looking for viable sources of water.
One of the most impressive sights are the river crossings, where thousands of brave animals face the threat of crocodiles in the murky waters.
These hoards are followed by predators. It is not uncommon during these times to witness some spectacular hunting scenes.
Photographer’s tip: don’t forget to use a bean bag to reduce camera shake and get sharp action shots!
When to go: July to October is the right time for migration safaris in Masai Mara.
This was my selection of five of the most elusive cats in the world. Which species of big cat would you like to see in the wild? Let us know in the comment section!