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


  1. Thanks Nick. Thanks for your thoughts and for your evocative descriptions of places I will probably never be able to visit. To my mind you are lucky beyond belief: I know it's not easy and much of what you do is hard work, but I know you know you are very privileged. Happy New Year and hope our paths will cross sometime soon. Barry

  2. Many thanks, Nick, for this wonderful, inspiring blog. We seem to have been with you throughout this monumental, endlessly fascinating year, and not just for the splendid two weeks we actually spent with you in Gujarat. Now we're looking forward to following you wherever 2016 takes you, and wish you all best in your new endeavours this year.