With their majestic and dignified natures, big cats have captivated the popular imagination for decades. The mere thought of a Bengal tiger emerging from the forest at dusk, or a pride of lions padding across the open plains is enough to send shivers down the spine of even the most seasoned wildlife enthusiast.
Known as the Magnificent Seven, jaguars, tigers, lions, leopards, cheetahs, snow leopards and pumas are the true stars of the wildlife scene. They are admired the world over, not just for their incredible strength and agility but for their place in our various cultures. They are the stars of our storybooks, our symbols of courage and ferocity, and sightings of them are some of the most treasured by safari goers and wildlife fanatics.
Seeing these magnificent animals in their natural habitats can be a challenge but there are steps you can take to maximise your chances. To help simplify your planning process, we have asked our local experts around the world to give us their top tips on where, when and how to see the iconic big cats.
When to go: June - November
The largest of South America’s big cat species, jaguars are known for their dappled coats and impressive jumping abilities. So much so in fact that their name actually derives from the Native American word ‘yagyuar’ meaning ‘he who kills with one leap’. Although they once roamed across the whole continent, increased poaching and human conflict has driven their numbers downwards. Population strongholds are now only found in remote regions where jaguars are able to lounge on riverbanks and prowl through the undergrowth undisturbed.
With the highest jaguar population in the world, Brazil should be top of the list for anyone wishing to catch a glimpse of these incredible animals. One particular area is renowned for sightings: the Pantanal. The Pantanal is the largest tropical wetland in the world and is a maze of waterways, savannah plains and dense rainforest vegetation. During the wet season, huge swathes of the Pantanal are waterlogged but as the weather warms the marshes shrink to expose vast areas of grassland. This reduction in water supply brings the wildlife into a more concentrated area and massively increases chances of sightings. As well as the iconic jaguar, the area is home to tapirs, capybaras, anteaters and capuchin and howler monkeys.
Our local experts recommend spending a few days in the region - drifting along the waterways and spotting wildlife as you go. When it comes to maximising your time, a good guide is vital as they will be able to spot any swishing tails or padding paws hidden in the undergrowth. They can show you the region, share their knowledge and give you an insight into the ongoing conservation battles underway in the Pantanal. Your first Pantanal excursion should certainly be on the river but there are also options for jeep safaris, canoe trips and horse riding. From the water, you may just see a jaguar lazing on the riverbank or wading into the shallow waters to fish or stalk capybara.
When to go: February - June
One of the most iconic of the big cat species, and the largest of the seven, tigers are frequently spotted in the wild despite their dwindling numbers. Poaching and human wildlife conflict has seen the population fall by 95% since the beginning of the twentieth century but new conservation efforts have put their figures back on an upward trajectory. The goal is to double their numbers by 2022, taking the total back up to over 6,000. Despite their changing environment and the consistent challenges they face, tigers still roam in multiple parts of Asia. They can be spotted in Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan and even parts of Siberia but India is the undisputed stronghold.
When it comes to spotting tigers in the wild, it is best to head straight for northern India. There are national parks dotted across the region, many of which are home to tiger populations. However, if you wish to maximise your chances of a sighting, one park can be recommended above the rest. Bandhavgarh has been a designated tiger reserve since 1993 and has the highest recorded population in the country. Despite this, the cats often prove tough to spot because of their elusive nature so having a good local guide to accompany you is vital for maximising your chances. These guides know the park’s 440 square kilometres better than anyone and receive live updates on where the tigers have been seen that day.
It is best to set aside a few days to spend in Bandhavgarh, especially if tigers are the main reason for your visit. The cats are often glimpsed moving through the undergrowth or ambling down to the water to drink so remain vigilant as you drive through the park. The reserve’s rolling hills are home to leopards, sloth bears and spotted deer as well as the iconic big cats so there should be plenty to keep you entertained. In terms of accommodation, most visitors base themselves in the village of Tala. It is located on the outskirts of the park and offers comfortable hotels and lodges.
When to go: May - October
The only big cat that lives in groups, lions are synonymous with safari experiences across Africa. Their majesty and power, and the fact that they have no natural predators, has earned them the nickname ‘King of Beasts’. When you see them loping lithely over the plains and taking down their prey, it’s not surprising to see why. It is the females that do the hunting on behalf of the pride, securing food for their cubs and the lead male. The African lion is one of the easiest big cat species to spot in the wild and they can be seen across the eastern and southern portions of the continent. Botswana, Uganda, Kenya and South Africa all boast lion hotspots but the King of the Jungle is most commonly seen on the plains of Tanzania.
Although the Serengeti may be the first place that springs to mind when planning a safari in Tanzania, heading further afield will gain you abundant lion sightings without the crowds. Tucked away in the south of the country, Ruaha National Park sees fewer than 6,000 visitors per year. Its status as a hidden gem, and the fact that it’s home to 10% of the world’s remaining lion population, makes it an appealing option for anyone looking for an exclusive big game experience. The sheer volume of lions living in Ruaha means that sightings are pretty much guaranteed all year round but it is still worth taking seasonality into account.
Travelling between May and October - Tanzania’s dry season - will give you an unforgettable game viewing experience. As watering holes dwindle, all the animals flock to the Great Ruaha River, standing shoulder to shoulder to drink on the banks. This density of potential prey brings lion prides out in force and you may even get to witness lionesses prowling across the plains on the hunt. The plains themselves are the Africa of your imagination - sprawling baobab trees, wide sand rivers and bright blue skies. They are also home to huge elephant populations, buffalo, antelope, leopard and African wild dog making Ruaha a fantastic all round destination for wildlife enthusiasts.
When to go: May - October
Found across Asia and Africa, the leopard is the big cat with the widest geographical distribution. Estimates suggest that there as many as 100,000 of them living in the wild, making them the most common big cat in Africa. You would be forgiven for thinking that this would mean they are easy to spot, but they are actually one of the most elusive of the Magnificent Seven. This is partly because they are solitary animals who choose to hunt at night but also increasing conflict between humans and wildlife has driven leopards further into the wilderness. Though they can be seen in Namibia, Uganda, India, Sri Lanka and even Iran, you are most likely to spot a leopard in one of South Africa’s sprawling national parks.
South Africa is a paradise for any wildlife lover. It’s easy to spot the Big Five roaming across its landscapes and it has one of the highest leopard populations of any country in the world. Despite this, the elusive cats are still one of the toughest animals to catch sight of while on a game drive through the country’s national parks. Unlike other big cats, leopards steer clear of rolling grasslands and prefer to hide in dense undergrowth. They are often found near rivers or bodies of water, lazing in the branches of thick limbed trees and keeping a watchful eye on their surroundings. If you want to maximise your chances, you need to head into these areas of prime habitat where populations are most concentrated.
Londolozi, a private game reserve on the western boundary of Kruger National Park, is one such place. It has established itself as a leopard stronghold in recent years and is believed to have one of the densest populations on the whole continent. Sabi Sands, another private reserve, is also very good for sightings. When it comes to spotting leopards, a good guide is crucial and you should also be prepared for some late night drives. Due to their nocturnal nature, spotting the cats during daylight hours is near impossible but a spotlight and a 4x4 may be all you need to catch a night time sighting.
When to go: June - October
Able to reach speeds of 60mph in just three seconds, the cheetah is the world’s fastest land mammal. Their slender bodies and distinctive markings distinguish them clearly from leopards, and a closer look will reveal the finer differences. For example, cheetahs have spotted fur while leopards have rosette shaped markings and cheetahs also prefer to hunt during the day and certainly use speed to their advantage. Watching them chase down their prey is one of the most thrilling safari experiences you can find but the cats themselves are famously tough to spot. Their preferred habitat is dry, open grasslands and as a result they are most commonly found in sub-Saharan Africa. They can be seen in Botswana, Tanzania and across Namibia, but Kenya’s Masai Mara is an undisputed stronghold.
Kenya’s Masai Mara is the Africa of your imagination - rolling grass plains, towering baobabs and wide open skies. It is one of the best known reserves in Africa and all of the Big Five can be spotted wandering across its grasslands. The park is also home to one of the densest cheetah populations in the world and is a great starting point for those wanting to catch a glimpse of the cats. It is vital that you find a good guide to maximise your chances (our local partner in Kenya will be more than happy to assist) and organise a driver to take you through the park. Cheetahs are most commonly seen in wide open areas or hiding behind rocks scoping out their prey. If you catch a glimpse of one, pull up and be patient - it could take off at any moment!
For a truly unforgettable experience, our partners recommend a hot air balloon flight over the Masai Mara. The engines of the jeeps can sometimes scare the cats off but a balloon flight offers an aerial view and leaves the wildlife undisturbed.
When to go: December - March
Widely known as ‘the ghost of the mountains’, snow leopards are one of the toughest big cat species to spot in the wild. Their elusive nature and increased conflict with humans in recent years has driven them further and further into the mountain ranges they call home. They have adapted to life in some of the harshest conditions on earth and are protected from the elements by their iconic dappled white fur coat. To this day, sightings of snow leopards are so rare that conservationists have struggled to pinpoint their population. Many of the animals are killed by cattle herders or poached for their teeth and fur so there is broad agreement that their numbers are trending downwards. While snow leopards are found in 12 countries across northern and Central Asia, they are most commonly seen in the Himalayas.
If you want to maximise your chances of seeing a snow leopard whilst also engaging with a hub of conservation efforts, you should head to Ladakh in northern India. Ladakh is wilderness personified - arid, pastel coloured peaks meet sprawling alpine lakes under wide open skies. Tiny villages and Buddhist temples dot the landscape and colourful prayer flags flutter in the wind.
At the heart of Ladakh you will find Hemis National Park which is world-renowned as the best area for snow leopard sightings. Hemis is vast - it is the largest national park in south Asia - and has drawn visitors from all over the world since its opening in 1981. Within the park, the Rumbak Valley is the best base for those seeking snow leopards. The valley is home to a tiny village which offers homestay accommodation to visitors. The locals are known for their hospitality and each of them is sure to have their own story of snow leopard encounters. Even in Rumbak, however, sightings of snow leopards are far from guaranteed and it is worth factoring in at least five to seven days in Hemis to give yourself the best possible chance. Patience is key - prepare for long waits in sub zero temperatures if you hope to catch a glimpse of the ‘grey ghost’. To maximise this time, it is vital that you have a good local guide (our experts in India will be more than happy to organise one for you) as they know the habits and behaviours of the snow leopards better than anyone. They are eagle eyed and will be able to spot the well camouflaged cats against the stark white backdrop of the Himalayas.
When to go: June - October
Pumas, also known as mountain lions, cougars and panthers, can be found across North and South America. They have the widest geographical distribution of any big cat and are also one of the least endangered. Their high numbers are often attributed to their adaptable nature and their preference for remote, hostile areas. Despite their high population, pumas remain tough to spot in the wild due to their elusive nature. It’s possible to catch a glimpse of them across the Americas but if you want to maximise your chances it is best to head into the Patagonian wilderness.
Chilean Patagonia is one of the most wild and unique ecosystems in the world. Sprawling lakes, towering mountain peaks and seemingly endless glaciers sit side by side, offering visitors a glimpse of true wilderness. Although pumas can be found throughout Patagonia, Torres del Paine National Park is home to an exceptionally high density.
The best way to catch a glimpse of the elusive cats is to book onto an organised puma tracking trip. These trips are led by local guides who know the area and the behavioural patterns of the pumas better than anyone else. Unlike other cat species, pumas are not GPS tracked meaning that they have to be sought out with traditional methods. Trackers rely on nature’s own signs - birds of prey circling recent kills and guanacos standing rigid, staring in the direction of the approaching puma. Our local partners recommend allowing three days for your puma tracking experience if you wish to maximise your chances of a sighting. It is also best to travel during the winter months as during warmer weather, when the trails are busy, the increased human presence drives the pumas deeper into the mountains. As the cold sets in, guanacos move down to lower altitudes to graze on grasses that are not covered with snow. As a result, puma sightings become more commonplace as they follow their food supply down the mountains. They are most often seen at dawn and dusk so you need to be prepared for some early starts and have your binoculars ready to go!
Make it happen
If you would like to travel to any of the destinations listed to spot your favourite big cat(s) then don't hesitate to get in touch with our local experts in Brazil, India, Tanzania, South Africa, Kenya or Chile and they can get to work on planning your perfect trip, using their local knowledge to ensure you have the best chance possible of spotting your desired cat. To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office, please call +44 (0) 117 325 7898.