Thursday, 31 December 2015


On a ridge above the Himalayan hamlet of Ulley a snow leopard walks through deep snow. The asiatic ibex on the next ridge stare in alarm but return to grazing, deciding this danger is remote. Far below in the village, a dzo calf in his yard and sweet tea steaming in his kettle, Nurboo sees the leopard and his wise eyes smile.

In the Serengeti the herds are in the south, the zebras' tails flicking flies from their streaked flanks and the wildebeest fat with their calves. The lions will be fat soon too, from feasting on the young of the newborn year and their parents.

In the Pantanal the rivers are high and their waters stretch silty across the plain. The tapirs and the brocket deer have taken refuge in the corridors of forest on the rivers' banks and on the islands of Tabebuia trees and Attalea palms in the savannah. With them go the dappled jaguars.

By another river, in Sabah, night has already fallen on 2015; on a muddy beach a flat-headed cat crouches, alert to the movement of small amphibious lives in the eddies. Above in the trees, their faces to the forest lest the clouded leopard come, sleeps a family of proboscis.

These are the snow leopard, the lions, the jaguars and the flat-headed cat that I myself saw in 2015, so long a year, so hard, and so soon over. The last month of this year has not gone as I had planned. Today has not gone as I had planned. It began with a burst pipe in my bathroom and continued with my tax return and a lengthy, inconclusive call to HMRC. There has not been time this past month for cats.

So my year with cats peters out, rather than roaring, as I'd hoped. I'm swamped in work for Norfolk Wildlife Trust and Naturetrek and I'm travelling again (far, far south this time) in three more weeks. So, many things I had hoped to say about cats I have not said, and will not say.

Much though I have said and done this year, I should not forget. I have seen many cats in the wild, more than I dared hope when I dreamed of this daft crusade. Of wild cats I have seen these:

cheetah Acinonyx jubatus fearonii                3
serval Leptailurus serval serval                    3
leopard Panthera pardus suahelicus            2
lion Panthera leo nubica                              78
snow leopard Panthera uncia                       3
jungle cat Felis chaus                                   2
tiger Panthera tigris tigris                            13
leopard Panthera pardus fusca                    4
lion Panthera leo persica                              7
leopard cat Prionailurus bengalensis           15
flat-headed cat Prionailurus planiceps          1
wildcat hybrid Felis silvestris grampia/catus  1
jaguar Panthera onca                                    17
puma Puma concolor                                    14
Iberian lynx Lynx pardinus                            1

I usually have little to do with zoos; but for all manner of reasons, social and professional, I've visited several this year and have seen eight further species of cat in captivity, plus numerous subspecies. The cats I have seen in captivity are:

Sunda clouded leopard Neofelis diardi borneensis, Lok Kawi Wildlife Park
serval Leptailurus serval, Lok Kawi Wildlife Park, Chester Zoo
Malayan tiger Panthera tigris jacksoni, Lok Kawi Wildlife Park
Amur tiger Panthera tigris altaica, Highland Wildlife Park, Banham Zoo
Scottish wildcat Felis silvestris grampia, Highland Wildlife Park, Edinburgh Zoo
northern lynx Lynx lynx lynx, Highland Wildlife Park
Sumatran tiger Panthera tigris sumatrae, Edinburgh Zoo, Chester Zoo, Thrigby Hall Wildlife Gardens
Asiatic lion Panthera leo persica, Edinburgh Zoo, Chester Zoo
ocelot Leopardus pardalis, Banham Zoo, Amazona Zoo
Snow leopard Panthera uncia, Banham Zoo, Thrigby Hall Wildlife Gardens
South African cheetah Acinonyx jubatus jubatus, Banham Zoo
Sri Lankan leopard Panthera pardus kotiya, Banham Zoo
Pallas's cat Otocolobus manul, Banham Zoo
Geoffroy's cat Leopardus geoffroyi, Banham Zoo
North African Cheetah Acinonyx jubatus soemmeringii, Chester Zoo
jaguar Panthera onca, Chester Zoo, Amazona Zoo
Asian clouded leopard Neofelis nebulosa, Thrigby Hall Wildlife Gardens
Asian golden cat Catopuma temminckii, Thrigby Hall Wildlife Gardens
unidentified wildcat subspecies Felis silvestris, Thrigby Hall Wildlife Gardens
Amur leopard Panthera pardus orientalis, Thrigby Hall Wildlife Gardens
puma Puma concolor, Amazona Zoo
jaguarundi Puma yagouaroundi, Amazona Zoo

I had meant to write much more this year about zoos and what they contribute to cat conservation, but there has simply not been time. Instead that time has been devoted to my little contribution to wildlife conservation here in Norfolk.

And what wildlife there is in Norfolk. As I write the jackdaws fly home to their roost, spattering the sky as the spots on a serval's flank; and the ducks on the pond turn in whirligig circles. This year they are many. I have a theory why, based on the most spurious evidence. For the first time since I moved here there were herring gulls over the village all summer, and they are here still now. Always there have been lesser black-backs in spring and summer and always these have preyed on the ducklings on the pond. This summer, to my eye, the herring gulls, though they themselves do not come down to the pond, kept the lesser black-backs away. To be sure a heron came many nights in the duckling season and took its share, but the lesser black-backs, such conspicuous predators in years gone by, I never saw come down and never saw take a single duckling. For whatever reason, there are many ducks on the pond as I write and a female is loudly quacking, the quack she only makes in winter and in spring, the quack she makes to tell the males her mind is on next year's broods.

My mind is on next year too. I am staying at home more than I have done for years. In part this is because I am tired. I was away for seven months last year and six months this. It is tiring. In part also it is because my home, with Mediterranean gulls overhead in the spring and woodcock a moment's walk away, is lovely. I have much work for Norfolk Wildlife Trust in its 90th anniversary year and am looking forward it.

In Sabah, where I looked with no success for Sunda clouded leopards for a month, it is New Year already. In Torres del Paine, where the pumas still stroll across José's wild cold home, there are hours to go. As for me, I'm off to see in the New Year with my family, with my small niece and nephew: the start of a year at home. In it I shall see very few cats. I'll be in Sabah briefly in April and almost certainly I'll see leopard cats. I might see a flat-headed cat again; who knows even a clouded leopard. But I have no other plans around cats.

Seeing so many cats this year has been an immense privilege. Working with friends and colleagues the world over has been a greater privilege still. Your company too has been a privilege. I thank you for reading, for travelling with me, and for letting me know, from time to time, what you have thought. I thank you for your love of cats and of the wild places they inhabit. They pace my dreams still, as I hope they do still yours. And will for this year to come.

May the wild be your blessing this New Year, in your homes and your minds, your travels and your words. I shall be watching from home, for the jackdaws and ducks, for each flower which topples into bloom in the giddy frenzy of spring. Perhaps I shall write about them; perhaps I will keep my small thoughts to myself.

A marsh tit's shadow in the Spanish sun
at the end of a year spent with cats

Look for a tiger and you find a leopard. If you do not go into the forest you find nothing. [...] You have to go into the dark and trust that loss will turn into vision, light will come.

Ruth Padel
Tigers in Red Weather

Thursday, 17 December 2015

My Cley

My grandfather was for many years the village doctor in Blakeney. My father grew up riding his horse along the lanes and across the farms and heaths around Blakeney and Cley. I was at school just up the road in Holt and every week a benign biology teacher, now among my dearest friends, would smuggle me from the formality of school onto Cley Marshes to learn about birds. I am still learning today, every day.

For these and many more reasons Cley to Salthouse is the Norfolk Wildlife Trust Living Landscape project which I love most, where I am most at home. The film we made at Cley with Mustard TV (with a cameo appearance by Sir David Attenborough as he opened the Simon Aspinall Wildlife Education Centre) was the last in our series and was aired last week. It is also available on the Norfolk Wildlife Trust website.

And now, in a world exclusive, it is also brought to you by a lowly marsh tit. With cold toes as it happens. Should have stayed in Spain.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Thanks Morup

Scrolling through Facebook a couple of days ago I came across this photo by my snow-leopard-watching friend in Ladakh Morup Theat.

It sent a clichéd but nonetheless wholly real shiver down my spine. For clearly it is a Eurasian lynx. I have spent hundreds of hours scanning frosty mountainsides in Ladakh and never seen a Eurasian lynx. Most of my Ladakhi friends and colleagues, who have spent untold thousands of hours scanning mountainsides, have seen the lynx only once or twice, or have never seen it at all. But here, in a photo taken at great range, was a lynx.

So I wrote to Morup and immediately he replied that he'd taken the photo at Rumbak Sumdo, the snowy plain at the top of the Rumbak Valley, above our camp, where last I stood in February and took this photo.

So, many thanks Morup for letting me use your photo, and congratulations on seeing your lynx. Iberian lynx I have seen this year, and wonderfully, but Eurasian no (except the northern subspecies at the Highland Wildlife Park). Perhaps I never shall. The older I get the more I find I enjoy the looking, beside beautiful-hearted colleagues the world over. The seeing these days is secondary.

Not, of course, that I'd say no to a Eurasian lynx.

Northern lynx at the Highland Wildlife Park

Iberian lynx Jasper by José Manuel Bernal

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Thanks Duncan

In March, my delightful client Duncan Woodhead saw his first tiger on my Tiger Direct! tour. It was Maya, the young Tadoba female whose cubs have appeared here twice recently. In response to my posts Duncan got in touch and he has been kind enough to send me these lovely images of cats we saw on our tour.

The first two are of Maya, an absurdly obliging tigress who featured on my blog as long ago as 2012 (the first two photos in this post from 2012 are of an 18-month-old Maya, while she was still with her two litter-mate sisters, her brother and her now-deceased mother F1). In March this year Maya was roaming the park, frequenting two large males, one of whom became the father of her three cubs, each of whom probably suspects he is the father. Clever Maya. This was the moment Duncan and the other three clients in his jeep saw their first ever tiger.

The next day, as we drove into the core of the park, Duncan's jeep-mate Dave, a very gifted birder, yelped 'leopard' from the other side of the jeep to me. There right by the road was a leopard in a tree. The leopard climbed down from his tree, just as one I saw in Tanzania in January had done. I assumed he would slink away, in the manner of leopards everywhere. Instead he sat by the road and looked at us, then rolled on his back, completely unconcerned by our presence. Before crossing the road right in front of us, he waited for another jeep to arrive, so that he could walk brazenly between the two. A leopard with delusions of tigerhood and a phenomenal experience for us all. Except perhaps for the leopard; he seemed supremely relaxed about it.

On our first day in Pench my whole group saw a heavily pregnant Collar Wali, now mother of two surviving cubs from the litter of four to which she gave birth early in April. The same afternoon we saw one of two two-year-old male cubs from her previous litter which were frequently being seen at the time. As can be seen from Duncan's photos, the great-pawed cub was as concerned by our presence as the leopard had been in Tadoba.

The first tigers we saw together in Kanha were a mother and her four cubs, which crossed Sondar Meadow and went into nearby forest along a stream. Duncan's photos here show the female and one of her beautiful cubs.

There are no words for the privilege of seeing these sensational animals (and let's face it I'm usually pretty wordy). It is a privilege too to travel with clients who understand why my colleagues and I lead tours, who travel with love and respect for the wild landscapes we visit and the cultures which live in them, and who, in the long run, become friends. Thank you Duncan, for your lovely photos, and for reminding me of these privileges. I know these tigers and this leopard still walk with you every day. As they do with me.

Friday, 11 December 2015

Cats and cameras

This week I've received the following photos from José Manuel, my lynx-tracking friend in Doñana, of Jasper, the two-year-old male Iberian lynx we saw together a few days ago.

Jasper the week before I saw him
by José Manuel Bernal

Jasper as I saw him last week
by José Manuel Bernal

Jasper licking his paws after a rabbit breakfast
by José Manuel Bernal

Jasper as he left us
by José Manuel Bernal

I've also heard from Amith, my co-leader in Satpura, now working his first season in Dudhwa in North India. He kindly sends these evocative images of tigers he has recently seen there and (oh Amith, didn't you hurt me enough with the rusty-spotted cat photo?) of a fishing cat he saw. there too. There is no fishing cat on my list but I am thrilled my talented friend has seen one.

Tiger in Dudhwa by Amith Bangre

Tiger in Dudhwa by Amith Bangre

Fishing cat in Dudhwa by Amith Bangre
(Don't just send me one; show me one!)

Wednesday, 9 December 2015


Good news from Tadoba in Central India, from where my friend Chirag Roy, a gifted naturalist and communicator at Svasara (also rescuer of cobras and spotter of rusty-spotted cats), sends these photos of Maya. On 5th March she became the first of the 13 tigers I saw in India this year. She's seen here with her three growing cubs, result of her dalliances with Tadoba's male tigers in the spring. Thank you Chirag for the news and your photos; thank you to the people of Tadoba for protecting this beautiful young family; and thank you Maya, just for being you.

Maya and two of her cubs by Chirag Roy

Maya's three cubs by Chirag Roy

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Cats, not cats and selfies

This morning I gave a talk on cat conservation for my friend Jerry Kinsley's students at Easton College. I chortled, driving there, to see this on the crazy golf course just outside the college gate.

This is not, in fact, the only tiger I've seen in Norfolk this year. In the summer I had a fascinating meeting with Mike Woolham, animal manager at Banham Zoo, about the zoo's commitment to engagement and education. I took the opportunity to get friendly with their Amur tigers, who competed to out-selfie the Highland Wildlife Park's Amur tigers in the spring.

Highland Wildlife Park Amur tiger selfie

Banham Zoo Amur tiger selfie

On the same day I pushed the boundaries of cat selfies, achieving them (with mixed success) with Southern African cheetah, Sri Lankan leopard, ocelot, snow leopard and Pallas's cat.

I'm ashamed not to have written up the many things Mike generously shared with me that day. I have been meaning to ever since but have simply not had time. Yesterday in the Norfolk Wildlife Trust office my very good friend Rebecca, head of PR and communications at NWT, said that she'd wondered why I hadn't written more about cats during the summer and autumn. Then she'd realised that it was she who was to blame.

She's not personally to blame, of course, but there is much truth in what she says. Most of my time in the UK this year has been devoted to helping produce a publication celebrating 90 years of Norfolk Wildlife Trust, which is now on sale.

The rest has been spent working on a series of short films about Norfolk Wildlife Trust's Living Landscape projects, which has been airing over the past six weeks on Mustard TV. The last episode, on the Cley to Salthouse Living Landscape project, will go out tomorrow night.

So yes, in a way, Rebecca is responsible for my not writing nearly as much about cats as I had planned (though I have described every one of the 164 cats I have seen in the wild). As 2015 ends, she and I have embarked on an ambitious project for NWT's coming anniversary year, so it's unlikely I shall have much more time for cats. I shall write up what I learned at Banham, as Mike was kind enough to meet me and share his experience and knowledge, and I hope one or two other ideas will make it to my blog.

For now I'm writing an article for the EDP Norfolk Magazine and tomorrow I shall be at Mustard TV, for the last film in our series, and to talk about Jasper the Iberian lynx I saw last week in Spain.

It's a funny old life, but a good one. And my work and journeys this year, with cats and without them, and with your company and support, have been an honour and a delight.