Saturday, 24 January 2015


Arusha, it has often been said, is all East Africa in microcosm. This beauteous park embraces grasslands, one of them the Serengeti Ndogo, the little Serengeti; the dramatic Ngurdotu crater too, Ngorongoro in miniature; there are sensuous evergreen forests up the flanks of the spent volcano; and the Momella lakes, the smaller freshwater, the larger alkaline, echoing the great lakes of the Rift.

In Serengeti Ndogo today we could not have been luckier. The plains zebras were frisky, chasing in circles, the teen males playfully biting one another's shoulders, the foals looking on bemused. The Masai giraffes, stared down at the zebras, ashamed, I like to think, at such frivolous behaviour. The African buffalo were almost drawn to take part, pointing in unison at the happy zebras, half in surprise, half in envy at their glee. The warthogs, unaffected, went about their snout-heavy business, their piglets trotting after them on quick little hooves.

iPhone Masai giraffe in Arusha

In the forest there were blue monkeys, slow and deliberate in their movements, their coats the dark grey blue of dry slate. Not far beyond were mantled colobus, the loveliest of East African monkeys, snowy tassel tails dangling from the leafy branches.

By the freshwater lake we had lunch, lines of little grebes and southern pochard on the water, and sacred ibis probing the muddy rush-bed by us. At the alkaline lake, lining its shore like a flaming ribbon, were thousands of lesser flamingos, a handful of gangly greaters with them. Blacksmith lapwings stood at the shore and past the beaujolais legs of the flamingos swam Cape teal in little flotillas.

Giraffes, bushbuck, common waterbuck, warthogs, zebras, all to our delight appeared in the brush and grass by the roadside, and the the sky was busy with hundreds of barn swallows, with black saw-wings and with plain martins.

There was much else besides; too much to tell this late at night. But there were no cats. Yet. Neither lion nor cheetah lives in Arusha and the leopards are lost in the dark forest. Tomorrow though we travel to Tarangire, home of elepants.

And lions.

iPhone African buffalo in the magnificence of Arusha

Friday, 23 January 2015


The beautiful gardens of Arumeru River Lodge, outside Arusha National Park, are a botanic miscellany of my past. Here, from my life in Bolivia, are trees of Hura crepitans, a valuable hardwood in the Euphorbiaceae, with a toxic sap, blinding even should a tree-feller get it in his eye. Found widely in Latin America, its indigestible seeds, much loved by macaws, are among the causes posited for the birds' need for stomach-settling kaolin from Amazon river-cliffs. Here too in this Tanzanian garden are Madagascar flame trees Delonix regia and rosy periwinkles from the great red isle, Grevillea and Callistemon from much further east in Gondwana, and many other plant friends from my decade and more in the tropics.

We are undeniably in Africa, however. Hiding on the bough of a Eucalyptus, a Psidium sprouting from its shade, are an adult African wood owl and its feathery caramel chick. And from the shadows of the woods' edge tiptoe Kirk's dikdiks, alert and jerking in their movement, their big sad eyes lined white, their legs too petite for even Degas to imagine.

Tomorrow Arusha National Park. Today, on no sleep, I am happy to be again in Africa.

An iPhone Kirk's dikdik

Leopards at Heathrow, in case I don't see any in the wild

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Who's who: an alternative view

My delightful six-year-old friend Anna was in some doubt as to whether I could identify the wildlife of Tanzania so she most helpfully penned me her own field guide. It includes some illustrations of me, lest, overcome by the spectacle of thousands of wildebeest and zebra, I should forget what I look like.







Nick as a penguin, apparently

With Anna's help, with packing done, and with a spare copy of Birds of East Africa in my luggage as a gift to a Tanzanian colleague from my friends at Wildsounds, I'm good to go.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Who's who: northern Tanzania

In Africa there are ten species of wild cat. Three of these do not occur in Tanzania. They are: the jungle cat Felis chaus, sometimes known in Africa as the swamp cat, which is an Asian species just tiptoeing into extreme northeast Africa in Egypt; the sand cat Felis margarita which occurs widely through deserts and sub-deserts in northern Africa and central Asia, but nowhere south of the Sahara; and its counterpart the black-footed cat Felis nigripes which inhabits arid areas of the far south. It is worth following the links to these last two species just to marvel at their outrageous cuteness. As for the jungle cat, I hope we will meet it in person in India later this year. A fourth species, the African golden cat Profelis (sometimes Felis or Caracal) aurata, inhabits the Central and West African forest belt, just skirting northwest Tanzania, around Lake Victoria.

In the great national parks of northern Tanzania, therefore, there are six cat species, three big and three small (although, as discussed previously, in evolutionary terms the cheetah is a small cat). It is hugely unlikely that in the next two weeks I shall see all six, but I will certainly come close to all of them. Over the coming months, once I have travelled in search of cats in Africa and Asia, there will be much more discussion here of their status, conservation and future. For now, these six species are:


Lion Panthera leo

The largest African cat, the lion is also remarkable for being the only highly social cat (though see cheetah below) and the only strongly sexually dimorphic cat in the world (though males without manes are known and, exceptionally, females have been recorded with manes). The lion is capable of thriving in widely varied habitats and within modern history occurred over most of Africa and southwest Asia, as far east as India (where, as we shall see in March, a tiny remnant population survives). It is considered to have become extinct in Europe as recently as 2,000 years ago. Lions are largely active at night, spending much of the day sleeping in their prides. Their prey, pride size and behaviour vary greatly across their range of habitats. Related adult females, who come into oestrus and give birth synchronously, make up the core of the pride with a coalition of males (usually unrelated to the females, and sometimes to one another) having tenure over them until toppled by the next male coalition. Recent studies have tended to dismiss the widely held belief that male lions are lazy and inefficient hunters.

Lions by Jude Cavey

Leopard Panthera pardus

Though belonging to different subfamilies, the American puma and the Old World leopard have many similarities. Both are medium sized and relatively gracile. Both have huge ranges, covering vastly varied habitats, the puma from northwest Canada to Patagonia, from the high Andes to the Amazon, and the leopard across the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa, through parts of the Middle East and Central Asia, across South and Southeast Asia, to parts of the Far East. Both species also occur (or historically occurred) in the shadow of much larger and more powerful cats: the puma beside the jaguar in much of Latin America, and the leopard beside the lion in Africa and beside both the lion and the tiger in Asia. Leopards (but not pumas) partly avoid danger and competition from larger cats by taking to the trees. Needless to say, across their vast range leopards are hugely adaptable in terms of diet and habitat. They are also remarkably tolerant of humans, though they often pass virtually undetected, notably in India. Like the lion the leopard largely hunts at night. Black leopards have occurred in many of the subspecies across Africa and Asia but are most often recorded in the dense, dark rainforests of Southeast Asia and Indonesia. (Black jaguars also occur and the term black panther, which is not a correct name for either species, is often used to describe both.)

Leopard by Jude Cavey


Serval Leptailurus serval

The serval is a widespread medium-sized cat of the non-forest and non-desert regions of Sub-Saharan Africa, with a small range in North Africa. Unlike any of the other cats I might see in Tanzania, it is an African endemic. It is usually spotted and is strangely proportioned, with long legs, a short tail and very large ears (but don't mention them; it's very sensitive). Black animals occur, especially in highlands. The serval is a specialist in small grassland mammals, especially rodents, finding them by sound and leaping onto them in the manner of a barn owl dropping onto prey. The serval is largely crepuscular.

Caracal caracal caracal

The only cat whose common, genus and species names are all the same, the beautiful dun-coloured caracal is found widely across Africa (outside the Central and West African forest belt and the central Sahara), through the Middle East and western Asia, into northwest India. Often known as the desert lynx, and formerly included in the genus Lynx, it has recently been found to have closer genetic links (see what I did there?) with the African golden cat, which is sometimes placed with it in the genus Caracal. The caracal is lynx-like in size and shape and like lynxes it has prominent ear-tufts. It is a specialist in small and mid-sized mammals including hares, hyraxes and small antelope, though it will also take birds. The caracal is largely nocturnal.

Cheetah Acinonyx jubatus

As discussed above, the cheetah is one of two large cats which are, in evolutionary terms, small cats. The cheetah is - yawn, everyone knows this - the fastest land mammal, which is jolly unfortunate if you are a Thomson's gazelle. (If you ever fancy experiencing mammalian speed, find a friendly pod of Dall's porpoises in the Pacific and try to outrun them as they bow-ride your boat.) The cheetah occurs widely in eastern and southern Africa, with a much reduced population in the Sahel. In the Middle East and Asia it once occurred as far east as western India, but there are now only a handful of individuals remaining in Iran. Cheetahs hunt by day, preying, in their main eastern and southern African populations, largely on medium-sized antelopes, especially impala and gazelles. The cheetah's strange, leggy shape and loping gait are adaptions for short bursts of high speed. It the most highly social cat except the lion; females from the same litter often stay together for months after leaving their mothers, with brothers sometimes forming coalitions which last lifetimes.

Cheetah by Jude Cavey

Wildcat Felis silvestris

The wildcat has a huge range in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and western Asia. Consequently its habitat and prey are highly varied and many subspecies have been described. In Africa it occurs everywhere except much of the Sahara and rodents are its chief prey, with some larger animals also taken. Though there is argument over taxonomy, particularly of subspecies, it was wildcats from Africa which were domesticated; in appearance African wildcats are more similar to domestic tabbies than any other species.

So now you know: the cats my Naturetrek clients and I will be looking for in Tanzania in the next two weeks are the lion, leopard, serval, caracal, cheetah and wildcat. I will be writing in Tanzania every day, though how often I upload to my blog will depend on wifi in remote areas. There will be much more discussion of the status of cats in Africa on my return.

Thanks to my aunt Jude Cavey for the use of her beautiful photos from Kenya and Tanzania.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

International Bluewater Hand Signals

This post, I admit, is a bit niche and has little to do with cats, but it will mean a lot if you were there. Here is my brilliant friend Tim Irvin, with whom the equally delightful Mat Janeway, Steve Roberts and I developed the International Bluewater Hand Signals on the Island Roamer last September, while leading Naturetrek's cruise in search of spirit bears, grizzlies and humpback whales in British Columbia. In seventeen years I have never worked with such a talented team or laughed so much on tour. (But Tim, you forgot rhinoceros auklet, fin whale, California gull and Steller's sealion. Another video is required.)

The wildlife was phenomenal too.

Grizzly bear by my friend and colleague
Carla Crossman

Humpback whale by Carla Crossman

Black bear by Carla Crossman

A marsh tit and his flock watching grizzlies by Tim Irvin

The Island Roamer and a marsh tit by Carla Crossman

The hooded merganser
(approved by International Bluewater Hand Signals)

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Gato gris

In the days when I lived in Bolivia I had many friends among the ornithologists and conservationists who work at Armonía, which is the vibrant and dynamic Bolivian partner of American Bird Conservancy, BirdLife International, Rainforest Trust and World Land Trust. Yesterday I heard from Bennett Hennessey, executive director of Armonía, who sent me this short video of a jaguarundi, known locally as gato gris. It was taken by a camera trap on the superb Barba Azul Nature Reserve which Armonía and its partners have established on 11,555 acres of the Llanos de Moxos for the critically endangered endemic blue-throated macaw and much other wildlife.

The fabulous Llanos de Moxos, an endemic ecoregion in the north of Bolivia, are comparable in importance to the Pantanal and are composed of seasonally flooded savannahs, palm swamps of Copernicia alba, riverine gallery forests, large lakes, dry cerrado savannahs and, at their edges, Amazonian and Chiquitano forests. The region is home to many species of cat. At the apex is the powerful jaguar, which I hope we will meet much later in the year in Brazil. Next in size is the slender, elegant puma, for which we shall be searching in southern Chile. Among the small cats, the varied habitats of the region are home to ocelots, margays, oncillas, pampas cats and jaguarundis.

Sadly all of these species have a history of persecution by humans, for their pelts and for their impact, real or imagined, on livestock and poultry. To the east, in the extensive forests of the Provincia Velasco in the Departamento de Santa Cruz, the jaguarundi is common; while I lived there I saw it far more frequently than any other cat. However, Bennett reports that, under Armonía's stewardship, many mammals are now recolonising the Barba Azul Nature Reserve and this footage represents the first record there of a jaguarundi. I hope it is the first of many cats he and his colleagues capture on film and, with nostalgia for my Bolivian days, I thank them for taking care of so precious a place and its wildlife.

Jaguarundi filmed on Armonía's Barba Azul Nature Reserve
in the Llanos de Moxos, Bolivia. Copyright Armonía,
reproduced with permission.

Armonía is fundraising to buy the adjacent ranch and more than double the size of the reserve. If you would like to help it is easy to make a donation through the World Land Trust.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Who's who: a baseline

A sagacious friend commented last week that, as a recent convert to wildlife, he would like to know more, before I travel, about the cats for which I will be searching throughout 2015. Having grown up attending weekly meetings of Attenboroholics Anonymous ('I'm Nick and I'm addicted to The Living Planet'), initially I was taken aback. Didn't everyone know the difference between leopards and jaguars, and where in the world they both lived? Wasn't everyone aware that Gerald Durrell had kept a Geoffroy's cat in an Argentine garage in The Whispering Land? Weird.

Then I realised that I was the weird one, and that most people, quite reasonably, couldn't tell their pampas cats from their Andean cats and wouldn't know a Pallas' cat if it were snuggled in their sock drawer. (On being asked once in Ladakh what a Pallas' cat looked like, I thought quickly on my feet and replied, 'Put a snow leopard in the wash at far too high a temperature, then bash in its nose with a plank.' Never bash in a Pallas' cat's nose with a plank, but it's what one looks like, I promise.)

So I'm weird and many people may need an introduction to the cats, big and small, that I shall be looking for this year. Bite-sized is the way forward, so in a post to follow very soon we'll start with the cats of northern Tanzania, where I shall be spending the last two weeks of January. Prior to that, however, we have some ground rules to establish.

The first thing you need to understand, since I've set out to see 'all the world's big cats in a single year' is that some big cats are small cats and some small cats have recently (and very inconveniently for my purposes) become big cats. Are you following?

Lion by Jude Cavey

For the sake of having a structure to work to, this year I will be adopting the cat taxonomy used in the Handbook of the Mammals of the World (Volume 1, Carnivores) edited by Don E. Wilson and Russell A. Mittermeier (with the exception that the Chinese mountain cat Felis bieti is now considered a subspecies of the wildcat Felis silvestris). There are thus (having discounted the aforementioned mountain cat) thirty-six wild cat species in the world, all of them in the family Felidae and all readily recognisable as cats. If you're a feline newbie, this fact alone - that there are thirty-six species of wild cat - may come as a surprise.

The family Felidae is further subdivided into two subfamilies, the Pantherinae or big cats, and the Felinae or small cats. So far, so simple. (But not 'simples'; oh no, those kats are in an altogether different family, the Herpestidae.) The problem from my point of view is that cat taxonomy used to be relatively straightforward, until Watson and Crick ruined natural history forever. In the good old days, the cats that were big were largely considered big cats and almost all placed in the genus Panthera. The cats that were small... well, you can fill in the blanks; and most of them were in the genus Felis. Recent genetic research, however, has radically changed the shape of things. For example, the Latin American jaguarundi (small, slim and decidedly weaselesque) has ended up in the same genus as the pan-American puma (definitely big in size, albeit on the slender side, and always referred to as a big cat); the Old World cheetah (scrawny yes, leggy too, but size-wise certainly big, and again one of the classic big cats) has become their closest relative, and all three of them are squarely in the small cat subfamily the Felinae. Thus two of the big cats I will be looking for this year, the puma and the cheetah, are in fact small cats by genetic affinity.

And then there are the clouded leopards. Don't talk to me about the clouded leopards. Just a few years ago there was one species of clouded leopard and it was the biggest small cat. Then the Watson and Crick brigade had to put their oar in and the clouded leopard became two (genuinely valid) species: the Asian (sometimes Indochinese) clouded leopard in mainland Southeast Asia and the Sunda (sometimes Diard's) clouded leopard in Sumatra and Borneo. As David Macdonald and Andrew Loveridge (editors) point out in their Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, the two species of clouded leopard in the genus Neofelis now sit with the genus Panthera (the unequivocally big big cats such as the lion, the jaguar and the tiger) in the Pantherinae or big cat subfamily.

So I have two more big cats to look for. Thanks Watson and Crick, thanks for that. More on the niceties of these discoveries, and their implications for me, anon.

For now, what have we learned? There are thirty-six species of wild cat in the world. They fall into two subfamilies, the generally big Pantherinae and the generally small Felinae.

Here, for the sake of a baseline (and without yet going into subspecies [oh the fun we'll have]), are the world's wild cats:

Family Felidae

Subfamily Pantherinae

Asian clouded leopard Neofelis nebulosa
Sunda clouded leopard Neofelis diardi
snow leopard Panthera uncia
tiger Panthera tigris
leopard Panthera pardus
lion Panthera leo
jaguar Panthera onca

Subfamily Felinae

marbled cat Pardofelis marmorata
bay cat Catopuma badia
Asian golden cat Catopuma temminckii
serval Leptailurus serval
African golden cat Profelis aurata
caracal Caracal caracal
ocelot Leopardus pardalis
margay Leopardus wiedii
pampas cat Leopardus colocolo
Andean cat Leopardus jacobitus
oncilla Leopardus tigrinus
kodkod Leopardus guigna (I promise I'm not just making these names up.)
Geoffroy's cat Leopardus geoffroyi (Quite different from Henry's cat.)
bobcat Lynx rufus
Canadian lynx Lynx canadensis
Eurasian lynx Lynx lynx
Iberian lynx Lynx pardinus
cheetah Acinonyx jubatus
jaguarundi Puma yagouaroundi
puma Puma concolor
Pallas' cat Otocolobus manul
rusty-spotted cat Prionailurus rubiginosus
flat-headed cat Prionailurus planiceps
fishing cat Prionailurus viverrinus
leopard cat Prionailurus bengalensis
jungle cat Felis chaus
black-footed cat Felis nigripes
sand cat Felis margarita
wildcat Felis silvestris

In summary: I have a heck of a lot to achieve this year.

In other news, today the same friend
became my first #BigCatQuest groupie