Big Cats and Where We Actually Saw Them

Tiger in Bandhavgarh National Park, India

Big cats are the ultimate wildlife thrill. In national parks and wilderness regions around the globe, hikers scan the hills and forests for fleeting glimpses of these elusive creatures. Successfully spotting wild cats requires equal parts effort and luck. As you can see from this post, we have put in the effort and we have had A LOT of luck.

In all, we have spotted 12 different types of wild cats, big and small. The pictures below represent 25 years of travel and trekking. They also represent a tremendous amount of good fortune and even better timing. While most of the big cat posts on the web have been cobbled together by people in a cubicle, this list is based on our experiences and our sightings. So if you are interested in fantastic beasts and where to find them, start reading.

African Lion

African lion

Where we saw them: Maasai Mara, Kenya; Tarangire and Ngorogoro, Tanzania; Hwange, Zimbabwe; Etosha, Namibia; Kgalagadi, South Africa

Details: We’ve seen a large number of African lions in several parks in Eastern and Southern Africa, but no place came close to the numbers we saw in Maasai Mara. In fact, our first lion encounter was in Maasai Mara, 17 lions eating a wildebeest!!! However, since we first visited Kenya in 1994, the lion population has declined dramatically.

Sri Lankan Leopard

leopard

Where we saw them: Yala National Park, Sri Lanka

Details: We spent 18 months in Africa and never saw a leopard. We spent another 16 months in India and never saw a leopard. We spent four days in Yala, and we saw three leopards. That pretty much says it all! (Watch our Yala video.)

Southern African Cheetah

cheetah

Where we saw it: Maasai Mara National Park, Kenya

Details: Cheetahs are a matter of luck. A year and a half in Africa and we only saw one cheetah in Maasai Mara. Populations are larger in parks in Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa. Also, visitors to Iran should check out the possibility of seeing the last remaining Asiatic cheetahs. (If you are wondering why we call this a southern African cheetah when we saw it in Kenya, that is the species name.)

South American Cougar (Puma)

puma mountain lion
Where we saw them: Torres del Paine National Park, Chile; Salkantay Region, Peru

Details: This picture above was the closest encounter we’ve ever had with any big cat. Thomas was literally threatening this puma with hiking poles just before this picture was shot by our friend David Valdés. Although pumas range across North and South America, Torres del Paine is generally regarded as the best place to seem them. We actually came here to see one, and we saw one!!! (Watch our Torres del Paine video and read our trekking guide)

Asiatic Lion

Asiatic lion

Where we saw them: Sasan Gir National Park, India

Details: Asiatic lions once ranged from Eastern Europe across the Middle East to South Asia. Most people don’t realize that a small pocket of Asiatic lions still exists in the Gir forests of the Indian state of Gujarat. And the good news is that the population is increasing due to conservation efforts. Our encounter was up close and personal as a lion pair marched right by our open-top Land Rover. (Watch our Sasan Gir lions video.)

Bengal Tiger

Tiger in Bandhavgarh National Park, India

Where we saw them: Bandhavgarh National Park and Corbett National Park, India

Details: We’ve seen six tigers in the wild: five in Bandhavgarh and one in Corbett. Both tiger pics in this post were shot while sitting on the back of a swaying elephant in Bandhavgarh. For serious big cat fans, it doesn’t get much better. However, we do have to give a shout-out to Chitwan National Park in Nepal, where you can track tigers on foot!!! We didn’t see a tiger in Chitwan, but the wet tiger prints we found made it clear that the tiger saw us. (Watch our Bandhavgarh video.)

Jaguar

jaguar

Where we saw it: Tambopata National Reserve, Peru

Details: The elusive jaguar is hard to spot in the wild. We tried in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Nicaragua and failed. Our luck came in Tambopata, Peru where a reasonable number of people manage to spot jaguars. However, luck is a relative term. I shot this highly cropped picture with a telephoto lens sitting in a longboat trying to make its way up rapids. Doesn’t seem so blurry now, does it? (Watch our Tambopata video.)

Ocelot

ocelot

Where we saw it: Tambopata National Reserve, Peru

Details: Of all the cats on this list, this is the one I am proudest of. We were with one of the best wildlife guides we’ve ever had, and he missed this ocelot. I (Tony) spotted this all on my own. To add to that pride, I managed to shoot a relatively focused picture of it though the tangled Amazon jungle. Hey, other people brag about their big houses and fancy cars; I brag about my ocelot. 😉

Geoffroy’s Cat

Geoffroy's cat

Where we saw it: Iberá Wetlands, Argentina

Details: This beautiful Geoffroy’s cat just casually strolled out of the jungle in the Iberá Wetlands, looked right at us, and then proceeded to urinate on tree after tree marking his territory. It’s as if we didn’t scare him at all. So the smallest cat on our list also turned out to be the most fearless.

Saw them, but missed the shot.

All the pictures above show the cats we actually spotted. All the cats listed below got away before we could get a picture (so these are open source images).

Clouded Leopard

clouded leopard

Where we saw it: Mulu National Park, Malaysia (Borneo)

Details: Seeing a clouded leopard in Mulu made me a bit sad because I suddenly realized I had used up all my potential lottery luck on one big cat. In other words, don’t hold your breath when you visit Mulu for this one. My professional guide had been working in Mulu for years, and he had never seen a clouded leopard before. The good news is that clouded leopards range from India to the Indonesian island of Java, so there are plenty of interesting national parks where you can try to see one.

Jaguarundi

jaguarundi

Where we saw it: Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, Mexico

Details: We saw the bizarrely elongated jaguarundi shooting across the road deep within the jungles of Calakmul. Ironically, we were slowly driving along the road looking for jaguars. As the song says, you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you get what you need… to make your cat list longer. 😉

Bobcat

bobcat

Where we saw it: Chaco Culture National Park, USA (New Mexico)

Details: Although bobcats are one of the most common cats in the United States and they range from coast to coast, we have only ever seen one. It was silently slipping out of the Pueblo Bonito ruins in Chaco Canyon. Unfortunately, he refused to pose in front of the ruins for me to take what would have been one hell of a picture.

The one that got away…

Snow Leopard

snow leopard
Where we DIDN’T see it: Annapurna Region, Nepal; Hemis National Park, India (Ladakh)

Details: No, we DID NOT see a snow leopard. But it was not for lack of trying. For many big cat fans, the elusive snow leopard proves one of the hardest cats in the world to see. We DID however come across fresh snow leopard prints while crossing the Thorung La Pass in Nepal’s Annapurna region. We also spent weeks trekking in and around Hemis National Park in Ladakh, India, which is generally considered one of the best places in the world to see snow leopards. No luck. In all, we spent 11 months in the Himalayas, but our precious snow leopard was nowhere to be seen. Well, that gives us a big cat goal for the future, right?

4 responses to “Big Cats and Where We Actually Saw Them”

  1. avatar Jessica says:

    Thank you for such a beautiful post. I can only dream of seeing these cats in the wild.

  2. avatar Bama says:

    As a self-confessed cat lover, big and small, I have yet to see any big cat in the wild. I’ve been to some national parks here in Indonesia where clouded leopards supposedly roam. But no luck so far — that and the fact that this lazy guy is never too determined to spotting one. Your shot of ocelot is a clear winner. Those big eyes of this elusive cat were perfectly fixated to your camera.

    • avatar Thomas says:

      Thanks, Bama! Clouded leopards are quite difficult to see. It took Tony several days of trekking in dense jungle before he caught a glimpse of one. Best of luck to you. Hopefully, you’ll get to see a big cat soon.

  3. avatar Evelyn Ono Vineberg says:

    Don’t tell me that you didn’t take a photo of the track prints! I’ve never seen a mountain lion in the field, but I have now seen and photographed several tracks. I’m almost as thrilled at seeing the prints around SD county. How I’d love to track in the snow! Let’s do it together on your return. 😀

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