As a wildlife artist who loves to draw, I have always been fascinated by the mystery of seeing cats in the wild.
From lions and tigers to the elusive leopards and lynxes, these amazing animals never cease to inspire my art and my admiration.
Despite their popularity and their important role in the ecosystem, many people are still not aware of the incredible diversity of wild cat species that can be found around the world.
I hope that my art and my words can help you learn more about the fascinating world of cats in the wild, and inspire you to take action to protect and conserve them.
Where can you spot big cats in the wild?
Short answer: Cats in the wild can be found all over the globe, except in Australia and Antarctica.
They have adapted to a wide range of habitats, from the sweltering savannahs of Africa, the dense rainforests of South America, the expansive deserts of Asia, to the snow-laden forests of North America and Europe.
Each region hosts specific species of cats that have evolved to thrive in their particular environments.
In Africa, you can find the king of the beasts, the lion, roaming the grasslands, while leopards lurk in the continent's forests and cheetahs dart across its deserts.
Asia is home to the largest cat species in the world, the tiger, and other unique species like the clouded leopard and snow leopard.
The Americas host a range of wild cats, including the elusive jaguar in South America and the widespread bobcat in North America.
Europe, while not as diverse, holds populations of Eurasian lynxes and the critically endangered Iberian lynx.
Also see my guide to collective nouns for animals.
Where to see cats in the wild
Africa is a haven for cats in the wild, hosting some of the world's most iconic and breathtaking species.
1. Lions in Serengeti, Tanzania, and Masai Mara, Kenya
Lions, known as the “King of Beasts,” are one of the most recognizable cats in the wild.
The Serengeti in Tanzania and Masai Mara in Kenya are among the best places in the world to witness these majestic creatures in their natural habitat. Here, they can be seen living in prides and hunting in the vast savannah grasslands. It's an awe-inspiring sight that truly captures the essence of Africa's wild beauty.
2. Leopards in Kruger National Park, South Africa
The elusive leopard, known for its strength and agility, is another of Africa's wild cats you might encounter.
Kruger National Park in South Africa offers an excellent opportunity to spot these solitary and nocturnal creatures. With some patience and a good guide, you might just catch a glimpse of a leopard lounging on a tree branch or stealthily stalking its prey.
3. Cheetahs in Namib Desert, Namibia
For those seeking a unique encounter with cats in the wild, Namibia's vast Namib desert is home to the incredible cheetah – the world's fastest land animal.
These graceful and powerful cats are adapted to the harsh desert environment and can be seen sprinting across the landscape in pursuit of prey.
Asia, with its diverse landscapes and habitats, is home to some truly exceptional cats in the wild.
1. Tigers in Ranthambore National Park, India
Tigers are perhaps the most magnificent of all the cats in the wild.
Ranthambore National Park in India is renowned for its tiger sightings, making it a must-visit for any wildlife enthusiast.
The first day I went into Ranthambore National Park, I was lucky enough to see two wild tigers.
The park's deciduous forests and lakes provide a perfect backdrop to watch these majestic striped cats in their natural habitat.
Early morning or late afternoon safaris increase your chances of a sighting.
2. Snow Leopards in Hemis National Park, India
In the high-altitude realms of the Himalayas resides the elusive Snow Leopard.
Hemis National Park in India is one of the few places on Earth where you stand a chance of spotting this “Ghost of the Mountains.” Spotting these cats in the wild is a challenging but rewarding experience.
Be prepared for rugged terrain and cold temperatures, but the sight of a snow leopard in its natural habitat is a memory you'll cherish forever.
3. Leopards in Yala National Park, Sri Lanka
Yala National Park in Sri Lanka is another excellent location for observing leopards.
In fact, it boasts one of the highest densities of leopards in the world, making it a top destination for sighting these cats in the wild. Here, leopards can often be spotted lounging on tree branches or silently stalking their prey amongst the park's diverse habitats.
Remember, dawn and dusk are the best times for leopard sightings.
The Americas, stretching from the icy landscapes of Patagonia to the sweltering jungles of Brazil, offer a thrilling array of opportunities to see cats in the wild.
1. Jaguars in Pantanal, Brazil
The Pantanal in Brazil, the world's largest tropical wetland, is the best place to see the powerful jaguar in the wild.
These cats are most active at dawn and dusk, and they often come to the riverbanks to drink, giving you a good chance for a sighting. The Pantanal's open landscapes and abundant wildlife make it a top destination for viewing these stunning cats in their natural environment.
2. Pumas in Torres del Paine, Chile
Chile's Torres del Paine National Park, with its breathtaking landscapes of mountains, glaciers, and grasslands, is a prime spot to see pumas in the wild.
Also known as cougars or mountain lions, pumas are elusive and generally avoid humans, but with patience, you can spot them, especially during the early morning or late evening hours. The sight of a puma against the backdrop of the park's stunning landscapes is an unforgettable experience.
3. Bobcats in various national parks across the United States
Bobcats, named for their bobbed tails, are the most common wildcats in North America.
These cats are found across the United States and can be spotted in various national parks, including Yosemite and Yellowstone. Bobcats are elusive and mostly nocturnal, but with a little luck and a lot of patience, you might spot one of these cats in the wild, often around dawn or dusk.
Europe might not be the first place that comes to mind when you think about seeing cats in the wild, but there are indeed opportunities to spot some unique species here.
1. Eurasian Lynx in Białowieża Forest, Poland
Białowieża Forest, located on the border of Poland and Belarus, is one of the last and largest remaining parts of the primeval forest that once covered much of Europe.
It is also home to the elusive Eurasian Lynx. This majestic cat, with its characteristic tufted ears and large paws, is a sight to behold. Spotting a Eurasian Lynx requires patience and luck, but the opportunity to see one of these rare cats in the wild is an unforgettable experience.
2. Iberian Lynx in Doñana National Park, Spain
The Iberian Lynx, the world's most endangered cat species, can be found in Doñana National Park in Spain.
This park, with its diverse habitats, including marshes, sand dunes, and woodland, offers a refuge for these rare cats. Sightings of Iberian Lynx are rare and special, so keep your eyes peeled and your camera ready if you're planning a visit to this unique park.
Tips for Spotting Cats in the Wild
Successfully spotting cats in the wild takes more than just being in the right place.
There are certain times, safety measures, and ethical considerations to keep in mind, and the help of local guides can be invaluable. Here are some guidelines to help maximize your chances of a sighting without disturbing the natural behavior of these magnificent creatures.
The best times to see cats in the wild
Wild cats are generally most active during dawn and dusk, which are often referred to as the “golden hours” for wildlife spotting.
This is when cats typically go hunting, so your chances of a sighting are significantly increased. Some cats, like the leopard, are also known to be nocturnal, so night safaris can be an option in some locations.
Safety measures and ethical considerations
Safety is paramount when seeking cats in the wild.
Always maintain a safe distance from any animals you encounter and never attempt to feed or touch them. Remember, you are in their territory. Similarly, respect local regulations and guidelines designed to protect wildlife.
Avoid using flash photography, which can startle animals, and always strive to minimize your impact on their natural habitat.
Importance of local guides
Local guides can greatly enhance your chances of spotting cats in the wild.
They have extensive knowledge of the animals' behavior and their local habitat, and they often know the best spots for sightings.
Additionally, using local guides supports local economies and promotes sustainable tourism practices.
Equipment and preparation
Prepare for your wild cat spotting adventure by packing appropriately.
Binoculars and a good camera with a zoom lens are essentials for any wildlife safari.
Dress in layers and choose clothing that blends with the environment to help you stay unnoticed by the animals.
Also, be sure to bring plenty of water, snacks, and sun protection.
Most importantly, remember to pack your patience—spotting cats in the wild can take time, but the experience is well worth the wait.
The easiest places to spot cats in the wild
Spotting cats in the wild is an experience like no other, but it can require a lot of patience and a bit of luck.
Fortunately, there are some places where your chances of a wild cat sighting are significantly higher due to accessibility, high population density, and frequent sightings.
Below, we've detailed some of these prime locations for spotting cats in the wild.
Analysis of accessibility, population density, and frequency of sightings
When choosing a location for spotting cats in the wild, there are a few factors to consider.
- Accessibility is key—some parks and reserves offer well-organized tours and safari experiences, making it easier to spot wildlife in a safe and ethical manner.
- Population density is another important factor. Areas with a high density of specific wild cats will naturally offer better chances of sightings.
- Lastly, consider the frequency of sightings reported in an area. This can often be a good indicator of your chances of spotting cats in the wild.
My top list of easiest places to see cats in the wild
- Serengeti, Tanzania, and Masai Mara, Kenya: These two locations are known for their high lion population and frequent sightings, especially during the wildebeest migration period.
- Ranthambore National Park, India: Known for its Bengal tiger population, this park offers regular safari tours, making it one of the most accessible places to see tigers in the wild.
- Yala National Park, Sri Lanka: With one of the highest density of leopards in the world, this park offers an excellent chance of spotting these elusive cats in the wild.
- Pantanal, Brazil: The world's largest tropical wetland, Pantanal is home to a significant number of Jaguars and offers guided tours for visitors.
The most dangerous places to spot cats in the wild
While the thrill of spotting cats in the wild can be alluring, it's crucial to understand that this endeavor does not come without risks.
From environmental challenges to the presence of other potentially dangerous animals, and the risk of disease, there are various factors that can make certain locations particularly hazardous for wild cat spotting.
Before venturing into the wild to spot cats, it's important to consider the potential risks and hazards.
Some of these risks can include:
- Environmental Challenges: Rough terrains, extreme weather conditions, and lack of immediate access to medical care in remote locations are some of the environmental challenges you may face.
- Potentially Dangerous Animals: The presence of other predators such as hippos, crocodiles, and snakes can pose a risk to your safety.
- Risk of Disease: In certain regions, mosquitos and other insects can transmit diseases like malaria or dengue fever.
- Poachers and Illegal Activities: In some areas, poaching or other illegal activities may pose a risk.
The 3 most dangerous locations to see cats in the wild
While most natural habitats of wild cats can present these challenges, a few places are notoriously risky:
- Sundarbans, India/Bangladesh: Home to the Bengal Tiger, the Sundarbans is a challenging terrain filled with mangroves and is also known for its saltwater crocodiles.
- Amazon Rainforest, Brazil: A vast and dense forest that's home to Jaguars, the Amazon Rainforest also hosts many other potentially dangerous animals.
- Danakil Desert, Ethiopia: While not typically a wild cat habitat, the African Wildcat has been spotted here. This place is known as one of the most inhospitable places on Earth due to its extreme temperatures and active volcanoes.
Where do big cats live in the wild?
Big cats like lions, tigers, leopards, and jaguars are found across continents. Lions inhabit Africa, particularly Serengeti in Tanzania and Masai Mara in Kenya. Tigers are found in Asia, mainly in the Indian subcontinent, including Ranthambore National Park in India. Leopards have a broad range from South Africa to Sri Lanka. Jaguars primarily reside in the Americas, with the Pantanal in Brazil being a notable habitat.
Where are the most big cats in the world?
The highest concentration of big cats is found in Africa and Asia. Africa is home to a large number of lions and leopards, while Asia has a substantial population of tigers and leopards. Specific regions with high concentrations of big cats include Serengeti and Masai Mara in Africa and Ranthambore National Park in India.
What do you do if you encounter a big cat in the wild?
When encountering a wild big cat, follow these steps for safety: Stay calm, avoid running, make yourself appear larger, speak firmly, avoid eye contact, and throw objects if necessary. These precautions ensure effective handling of such encounters.
What time do big cats hunt?
Big cats are primarily crepuscular, which means they are most active during dawn and dusk. This is when they typically hunt, taking advantage of the low light conditions to ambush their prey.
What states in the United States have big cats?
In the United States, big cats, primarily cougars/mountain lions and bobcats, can be found across many states. Cougars have a range extending from the west coast to the western edge of the Great Plains. Bobcats are more widespread and are found across the majority of the continental U.S.
What is the biggest wild cat left today?
The biggest wild cat species today is the tiger, specifically the Siberian tiger, which can reach up to 660 pounds and 10 feet in length, not including the tail.
What to do if a mountain lion stalks you?
If stalked by a mountain lion, appear larger by standing tall, opening your jacket if available. Maintain eye contact, make loud noises, back away slowly. Avoid running, as it can trigger chase response. If the mountain lion persists, throw objects without turning back or bending down.
How can you tell if a big wild cat is near?
Signs of a nearby mountain lion may include tracks (which look similar to those of a domestic cat, but are larger and show no claw marks), scrapes or other signs of marking, and droppings. You might also find carcasses of prey animals that have been covered with leaves or dirt, which is characteristic of how mountain lions store their food.
Are there still cats in the wild?
Yes, numerous wild cat species exist, including big cats like lions and tigers, as well as smaller cats like bobcats and lynxes. Sadly, many face threats from habitat loss and poaching, making them endangered. Conservation efforts aim to safeguard these magnificent creatures and their habitats, promoting their survival in the wild.
How many species of cats in the wild are threatened with extinction?
25 wild cat species face extinction due to human-driven threats like habitat loss, prey decline, and persecution. Among these threatened species, five are listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. It's also worth noting that wild cats are facing significant threats from illegal wildlife trade and snares, particularly in Southeast Asia. These snares are indiscriminate and pose a risk to multiple species, including threatened wild cats.