Saturday, 31 January 2015

Simba na watoto, chui juu ya mti na duma

Had I, with the blessing of hindsight, to choose a half hour into which to compress the African leg of my Big Cat Quest, this morning between quarter past eight and quarter to nine would do well. We saw in this time six lions, a leopard and a cheetah.

We went north from Mbuzi Mawe, through the gorgeous Togoro savannahs, golden heads of grasses stirring in the morning's breeze. All around were antelopes: tan and slate topi, milky tea hartebeest, Grant's and Thomson's gazelles, keeping time with their tails. With them were many buffalos and zebras. There was much here for a cat to eat.

The first lions were two cubs under six months which cantered across the track ahead of our jeeps and dived into a dense bush by a small marsh at the roadside. Their faces, and the face of a sibling, poked from this bush and the grasses by it, checking what manner of creatures these were that were staring so rudely.

As we stared, Richard lifted his binoculars to the largest tree behind the marsh and laconically announced it held a leopard. A leopard so close to a den of young lions was remarkable, but there it lay, relaxed, on a thick horizontal branch. The lion cubs by now were venturing from their bush, slipping away to the long grass. With them, to our surprise and delight, went a sleek lioness, perhaps their mother, and two more cubs, one clearly smaller and from another litter.

There is a leopard in the lower left of the tree.

Richard spotted a second lioness among spindly trees at the top of the slight slope to our right. We raised binoculars and together said, 'Cheetah!' It was possible now to see lions, a leopard and a cheetah all at once, within a few hundred metres of one another and of us, all found within half an hour of seeing the first cubs.

I made so bold as to think that Africa's cats approved of my Big Cat Quest.

We cautiously approached the cheetah, but it had settled into the shade of a tree as the day's heat rose, so we drove on to the north. A few minutes further we came across a male lion in the open, haloed in bright grasses. I pointed him out to my clients and they thought I was joking. How could the cat-watching be this good? 'Wouldn't that be nice,' said one. 'No, look!' said I in response.

He sat, our lion, in the grass, his dense mane the almost-black of the darkest chocolate. He turned his impassive tawny eyes to our jeeps and stared. This was the lion we had all still been hoping to see.

The dark shape in the centre of the photo is a lion.

A little further we met another lioness, with two still-spotty cubs, at the edge of a small stream. There were ostriches, there were European and lilac-breasted rollers, there were European bee-eaters (above the great male lion's head), there were Bohor reedbuck and there were lappet-faced and white-backed vultures. On the way back there were still lion cubs under the bush, and a lioness close by in the grass.

And we, we were very happy.

Simba na watoto, chui juu ya mti na duma: a lion with cubs, a leopard in a tree and a cheetah.

Friday, 30 January 2015


From my bed in a tent on a kopje I listen as a lion roars in the night. I spent much of the day watching lions, yet somehow still I long to see this one tomorrow.

In the company of lions

We spent this morning in the company of lions. The first we met were two lionesses weaving through the waving grasses, eyes locked on a big herd of buffalo. Behind came two more, watching the leaders as they went. The lead female sat, and her focus changed to a smaller group of buffalo past the river and our jeeps, on the other side of the road. The second then crossed the river and wove by its bank to a ford. She slumped in the shade of a bush with another lioness, previously unseen. Soon though she left to drink from the ford, mere metres from our jeep. She was followed by the new lioness, who, barely could we believe it, had two small cubs - no more than six weeks old - at heel. This lioness spread herself under a dead tree in full view and her tubby cubs suckled. Cameras clicked, hearts raced and tears rolled in our jeeps.

Lioness with young cubs.

Soon a third lioness crossed the river towards us. Her nose sliced in two and half of one canine lost she stood by the road and panted in the blunt late morning heat. Her pride sisters, the syrup-gold female who had drunk from the ford and the massive pale mother, joined her, leaving the cubs in the safe shade. They now moved towards the buffalo herd and the acacias by them.

We too moved, to visit more lions, who since morning had been watched stripping a buffalo killed last night. These were the same too-slim mothers and cubs we had seen yesterday, one of them readily recognisable by her satellite collar. By the time we reached them only two females, including the collared animal, yet gnawed at the bones of this once great beast. A male buffalo reduced to blood-pink bone and still-broad horns in a matter of hours. Ruepell's starlings crowded the lions, hoping for handouts, and two black-backed jackals trotted in circles around them, awaiting their chance.

The rest of the pride sat nearby in the shade, three females draped in the branches of a tree, their bellies, yesterday so empty, swollen with meat. Their hunger assuaged they dozed, safe from starvation for a few days more.

Lionesses in a tree.

Again we moved, now to Retima, where the Seronera and Orange rivers meet, and dozens of hippos belch, grunt and fart the day away, filling the air with their stench. A single small crocodile lay by them in the hippo-filthy water and a blacksmith lapwing trotted in hesitant fits and starts along the shore.

It's an easy mistake to make.

This afternoon, now to the north, we drove through Togoro, a wide wild savannah skirted around with acacias. In the tree-belt a steinbok crouched to the grass before skipping away on light feet. Light-footed too, a pair of Temminck's coursers crept across stones at our approach. Every scrubby tree seemed taken, by a European roller, or a cuckoo, African or great spotted. As the grassland opened we came to a herd of the kind depicted in children's books and films. Here was all imagined Africa in one: zebra, buffalo, hartebeest, topi, Grant's and Thomson's gazelles, ostrich and a secretarybird. On the ridge of the hill above a single giraffe browsed. All Africa in one.

We stay tonight at Mbuzi Mawe. whose name in Swahili means klipspringer. These little rock-hopping antelopes inhabit this wonderful camp and the boulders above. As I write yellow-spotted bush-hyraxes bounce on the canvas roof of the bar and cicadas sing the great song of Africa to the night.

A male hyrax, apparently.


It was jokingly suggested to me a couple of evenings ago, as I wore a Big Cat Quest t-shirt, that I should produce a range of merchandise. Quite independently, and equally light-heartedly, a bean-goose-spotting friend last night sent me this. I post it here with apologies to anyone whose photos he has filched. We will see many of these cats, but, given that Richard has seen four or five caracals in fifteen years as a driver-guide, and that wildcat is largely nocturnal and night drives are not permitted (I saw one in Ethiopia in November and wished it had waited a couple of months), I suspect that for Africa we're done. With cheetah, serval, leopard and lion all seen beautifully, living their wild lives, I am hugely happy.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Simba kumi nanane namondo mmoja

This morning our many friends lined the roadside to greet us as we went: the graceful, ponderous giraffe, the bruise-flanked topi, the lithe impala and the squat warthog. There were elephants on our way too, including a tiny youngster: mtoto watemba. We greeted them all but our minds were set on one thing.

We saw them first, the wildebeest and zebras, in a great stripe across the horizon. We approached and saw them now as individuals, thousands upon uncountable thousands of round-haunched zebras and thin-shanked wildebeest, milling in untidy lines over the plain. The wildebeest were all but all males, here ahead of the pregnant females who wait to the north for more rain to fall before coming to drop their calves. Just one fresh-born calf was among the many thousands we passed, the afterbirth still dangling from its mother. With the zebras, equal in number with the wildebeest, were many foals of all ages, their stripes a rich brown, shining in the morning sun.

Over these tens of thousands of migrants were migrants of another kind. Hundreds of white storks from Europe, many hundreds more of cattle egrets, drifting over the herds in waves. Vultures - Ruepell's, lappet-faced, hooded and white-headed - swayed through the sky and all around the wildebeest were great flocks of wattled starlings.

This was the timeless, rain-following pilgrimage we had come to see.

Lest the zebras be thirsty

We turned home in the afternoon through the Seronera valley, where hippos lay fat in the water and all about them trotted ruff, little stint, black crake and three-banded plover. Giraffes fed here on well-watered acacias and marabous sulked in the tops of the trees.

With excitement I saw three jeeps gathered by an acacia ahead. To the left of them on a ridge a few buffalo could be seen but the jeeps' attention, and ours too, was focused on the patch of shade cast by the flat-crowned old tree. Here were lionesses and their cubs in a hot heap; these handsome, magnificent animals whiling by the day in half-feigned sleep.

Further left though, the top of a gold head could be seen in the breeze-rippled grass; a lioness' head staring intently at the buffalo on the slope's crest. She crawled forward, her muscled back cutting through the waves of grass. Another head appeared behind her, equally fixed on the buffalo. The first lioness dropped and the second replaced her, inching forward, intent on life-giving death.

The forward lioness broke into a run; her sisters under the tree stood to watch, and one by one they peeled from the pride to hem in their prey. But the the buffalo crashed over the ridge in panic, far more of them, by the dusty drumming of their feet, than we had seen. The lionesses had failed and as they returned to their well-grown cubs under the tree we saw, despite their muscular magnificence, how thin they were. They had not eaten in days.

The buffalo, dozens of them, emboldened by the lioness' retreat, and wishing to press home their advantage, blundered back down the hill towards the pride, a boss-headed bull in their lead. Too many tons of flesh bore down on the lions, who fled from their stand and crossed the road among the few jeeps gathered at this drama. Eighteen of them: seven lionesses and eleven cubs, thin but well-grown, of more than six months' age.

They slipped into the channel of the river, and out of view, these lions. Today the buffalo had won this skirmish in the eternal battle between predator and prey. We drove on, our jeep full of excited talk of cats. The sky, as we crossed the short-grass plain, turned saturnine, and the cool damp air spoke of rain. With my mind in India, and several such heavy afternoons on which I had seen jungle cats, I turned to my group and said, 'I feel a serval coming on.'

Minutes later Richard pulls to a stop and by the right side of the road sits a ramrod cat with gemstone eyes and absurdly big ears. Its legs are neatly striped, as though swiped with a blackened brush. The serval stands and walks beside us, then slips into the wispy grass on neat, deliberate feet, its ears twitching for a mouse's squeak and a meal.

We drive back through the rain, past Hartlaub's bustards and trees decked in lesser kestrels. Miles to the north the news of this rain will reach the nostrils of the wildebeest and perhaps it will bring them here. Some of them in their death will bring fortune to our hungry lions.

Simba kumi nanane namondo mmoja: eighteen lions and a serval.

Cats seen in 2015
cheetah Acinonyx jubatus
serval Leptailurus serval
leopard Panthera pardus
African lion Panthera leo

Wednesday, 28 January 2015


'This is good habitat for leopards', said George this afternoon as we drove across an acacia-dotted plain in the Serengeti. 'You should keep your eyes open for them.' My eyes, be I in India or Africa, are always open for leopards and a few hundred metres further, with what I like to imagine was a nonchalant air, I pointed one out to my group, draped across the branch of a tree some tens of metres from the track.

Inside I was far from nonchalant; I was cheering for joy. Of all the cats I have seen, leopards, with the exception of snow leopards, fire my imagination most. They are power and grace in one gorgeous animal. They have the strength to walk up a tree with an impala in their jaws. They can sink into grass and be lost in a moment. Their walk is purposeful and their gaze fierce. And their coats are the most lustrous of any cat's. They are also unreliable, the big cat I was most fearful I would miss in Tanzania: inside I was cheering for joy.

Our leopard was not comfortable. He moved between branches in his acacia, dangling legs and tail, pulling them up, turning to face us, turning away. The pewter clouds, which had gathered all morning over the plain, hurled their rain at him in fitful flurries. As if this were not enough, a silverbird, incensed at this feline intrusion, mobbed him, inches from his nose. Unable to find peace he gave up on his tree and, head-first in the manner of his kind, slipped down the trunk and into the gold grasses below. He walked swiftly - no doubt aware of a male lion seen earlier close by - to the next tree, scaled it and settled to sleep. Now he was happy.

We too were happy as we drove back to our lodge in the late afternoon, past topi and Kirk's dikdiks, defassa waterbuck and Hildebrandt's starlings. Inside and out, in this place where the wild still ebbs and flows in a great tide, we cheered for joy.

Acacia savannah in the Serengeti

The blob in the lower left branch is a leopard.

Cats seen in 2015
cheetah Acinonyx jubatus
serval Leptailurus serval
leopard Panthera pardus


Words. I always have words, Words, and birds, are what I do. Today I have no words.

I have no words for the view from the rim of Ngorongoro, with wildebeest, eland, zebra, hippo, elephant and buffalo sprinkled like tiny toys in their hundreds across the vastness of the crater floor.

No words for the thousands of Thomson's gazelles in the short-grass plain of the southern Serengeti, or the hundreds of Grant's gazelles and wildebeest with them. No words for the kori bustard striding by, dwarfing the little gazelles; nor for the stately ostriches or the capped wheatears proud on stones at the edge of the track. No words for the spotted hyenas at the mouths of their dusty dens or the lappet-faced vultures and steppe eagles crouching on the plain.

I have one word: mondo. As we passed the marsh at Vidmbwini, still an hour from our lodge after a long, hot, dusty drive, I caught sight of a jackal in the distance. Raising my binoculars I saw instead for one moment a leggy, small-headed cat with bold black bars on its legs and blotches on its back.

Mondo: it means in Swahili a serval.

Cats seen in 2015
cheetah Acinonyx jubatus
serval Leptailurus serval

Tuesday, 27 January 2015


From the jumbled hills at the base of the western scarp of the Great Rift there springs fresh water. This water flows to the valley as streams, through a belt of shady green forest, the haunt of olive baboons and silvery-cheeked hornbills. From here these streams cross a short-grass plain, then fade into the papyrus marshes which fringe Lake Manyara. Reaching the lake the water is lost to all but the most specialised life as Manyara, like most of the lakes in the Rift, is alkaline.

Yet fed by these springs, the forest, the grassland and the marshes throb with life. A slender mongoose bolts across the track as we enter the park and frequently our way is blocked by families of baboons or vervets, a few shyer blue monkeys flanking them in the forest. As the trees thin we meet elephants, scuffing the sward with their great feet to dislodge tiny legumes which they lift with their trunks in neat bunches to their mouths.

On top of the last acacia at the forest edge are two northern carmine bee-eaters, their colours explosive in the late light of an African afternoon. Beyond, on the grass, are the two bookends on the spectrum of elegance and beauty in the antelope world. The little Thomson's gazelles drift over the plain on delicate hooves, their slim black tails dancing across their black-and-white rumps. On their flanks is a bold black diagonal, dividing their toffee backs from their milky bellies.

The other bookend is the blue wildebeest. It is not a creature of beauty. Ungainly, misshapen, these flat-faced, black-faced, mottle-grey animals have scant white beards and short curved horns, too-slim legs and too-big tails; all in contrast with the dapper gazelles nearby. Around these African antelopes are numberless European birds: hundreds of yellow wagtails at their feet, hundreds of barn swallows over their backs, and on a dusty pan nearby hundreds of collared pratincoles hunkering to the earth until launched in a swallow-winged cloud by the passage of a pallid harrier.

The marsh is bright and loud and busy with life. Here three species of African lapwing pace beside many waders from the north: wood, marsh and common sandpipers and a single curlew. A muddy bank is a plate from an African field guide: a white stork, a marabou, two sacred ibis, four great white pelicans and a solemn crowd of yellow-billed storks. Fan-tailed widows and winding cisticolas fuss and fidget in the papyrus and all the while a dozen hippos belch and surface in a muddy pool which looks too small by far to hold them.

Of Manyara's tree-climbing lions we saw nothing. It mattered nothing in this wondrous place where Africa and Europe collide in a hundred-thousand wings.

Lake Manyara from my hotel room

Elephants in the Rift Valley

An iPhone in Tarangire

I am absolutely not a photographer but here are a few amateurish images from Tarangire taken on my iPhone to illustrate my words.

The Tarangire river

African baobab Adansonia digitata

iPhone iMpala

The dark dot under the right side of the bushes on the left is a cheetah.

Fractionally more recognisable cheetah

Common waterbuck and olive baboons


Similarly scrawny, furry primate

Monday, 26 January 2015

Duma nangiri

Our driver-guides Richard and George are the axle on which our understanding of Tanzania turns. Friendly, charming and both highly experienced, they freely share their knowledge of the country's tremendous parks and wildlife.

This morning we left early with them and drove by the Tarangire river until we encountered a family of elephants with numerous young. A pair of grey kestrels perched in a tree by them, a magpie shrike and two lilac-breasted rollers swooped for insect food and through the grass and scrub wove northern pied babblers and a red-cheeked cordon-bleu. The elephants meanwhile tugged great clumps of grass with their trunks and passed them to their cavernous mouths.

Quickly a group of elephants began chasing downhill, males of all ages in pursuit of a young female in oestrus. She rejected their suit and clung to the biggest male who soon pushed away the hormonal young hopefuls. All the while a beautiful sunbird trilled in an acacia, a tiny iridescent shred of life claiming his own patch of a landscape owned on another scale by hundreds of tons of elephant.

Radios crackle all the while in our jeeps and though I speak no Swahili I closely watch George beside whom I sit today. As professional as he is, as dispassionate as he pretends to be, I sense he's received news of a carnivore. Strange though it is in Tanzania, this bright young man and I have Spanish as a common language and quickly I learn that duma - cheetah - was the key word in his Swahili conversation. One of his colleagues has found two.

We tip off Richard and leave calmly, making brief stops for clients to take photographs, still unaware there may be excitement ahead. As we near the spot we see giraffes gathered in a thicket of necks, pointing in unison at the same low bush. In its shade, briefly, we see the upper body of a cheetah before it drops to the long grass and is lost.

Both cheetahs raise their heads occasionally, sometimes turning to stare with their soulful, tear-marked faces. An impala stands on the bank of a nearby waterhole, a grey crowned crane stretches at the top of a dead tree and through an acacia hops a brown-crowned tchagra. It is hot.

We entertain ourselves watching a family of warthogs with four small piglets, crashing through the grass on the other side of the road. They cross it, away towards the lone impala and the browsing giraffes. Slowly though they turn back towards us, unaware of the lean spotted cats who crouch under a shrubby acacia. Soon the far side of the bush is encircled by warthogs, blundering about their business. Too late the mother, already alerted by their scent, sees one of the cheetahs just feet from her.

Her only option is to charge, to protect her young. The first cheetah runs ahead of the rampant pig, a sprung coil of gold and black. The other follows a pace behind, cheetah-warthog-cheetah giving chase.

Their foe returned to her piglets, the cheetahs slink away to the shade of a line of trees. We think they may be brothers, facing life together, and we follow along the road. They cross a patch of open sand, giving what we imagine will be our best views, both gorgeous animals wholly visible. But these are far from our best views, as first one cat, then the other, climbs to the top of a termite mound in the shade of a big acacia.

As we watch the cheetahs, relaxed now that they can see the approach of danger, it is clear, from the kittenish face and golden mane of one of them, that these are in fact a mother and her nearly full-grown cub. I realise, with a giant smile, seeing these two exquisite creatures, that my year in the company of cats has begun.

Duma nangiri: the cheetah and the warthog.

Cats seen  in 2015
cheetah Acinonyx jubatus


25th January

Arrival in Tarangire is, as clichéd as is it to say, a step back to another Africa. The grass is tall, following the short rains, and the acacias and baobabs green. They are noisy too, with northern white-crowned shrikes, white-headed buffalo-weavers, lilac-breasted rollers, yellow-collared lovebirds and a host of other birds, each lovelier than the last. A yellow-necked spurfowl strolls nonchalant across the dust track; impala and common ostrich pant in the trees' shade, waiting for late afternoon's cool to come again before they move.

Still on the move are fat, happy elephants, well fed by the flush of post-rains growth, playful and strong. At first there are one or two of them, then dozens, then dozens more crowding round our jeeps, trunks swaying as they go. Moving too is a posse of nineteen banded mongooses, about their midday mischief in the heat.

As we reach our spectacular lodge, perched on a bluff above the Tarangire river, we gasp at the spectacle of old Africa. Beneath the trees studding the horizon-touching plain are Maasai giraffes and many, many elephants. A Coke's hartebeest lopes ungainly by and overhead a pair of African hawk-eagles circles in lazy loops. All the while a red-chested cuckoo sings above my tent.

And this is but the beginning.

Late in the afternoon, on our first drive in the park, we see far more of the same species and new: crested francolin, red-necked spurfowl, European roller and arrow-marked babbler. Through the long grass in the gilt light of evening trots a black-backed jackal, ears pricked and eyes bright; and with him in our minds we return to the lodge to be escorted to our tents by a guard.

To keep us safe from the lions who wander through camp by night.

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 Maasai 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)