BBC's Big Cats: A Retrospective

Josh Wright

26 Jan 2018

NWS Josh looks back at the recent 3-part series

Whether you’re a dog person or a cat person, the BBC’s newest wildlife documentary series provided enough extraordinary footage and cutting-edge insights to keep all wildlife-lovers enthralled over the past three weeks. Despite its title, Big Cats gives screen time to all members of the Felidae family, from the smallest (the rusty-spotted cat) to the largest (the Siberian tiger). Over two years, the Big Cats team travelled across Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas to film felines in the wild, as well as the men and women who are working to study and protect these often elusive and solitary animals. In this blog, we’ll recap the highlights from the series and show you how you can see some of the titular big cats for yourself.

Of some 40 or so species of cat, lions are the only ones to live in groups, with prides usually consisting of around 15 individuals. In Episode 1, however, we see that some African lions on the plains of Tanzania form “super prides” that are double this size, giving them the courage to hunt formidable prey like buffalo, which far outweigh the predators. Our Southern Tanzania Safari combines a trip to Ruaha National Park, where this footage was filmed, with stops at the country’s picturesque coastlines and wildlife-rich Selous Reserve.

The next scene may appear at first to show a kitten tentatively exploring the forest floor of Sri Lanka, but it is in fact a rusty-spotted cat, which at less than half a metre in length and around 1kg in weight is 200 times smaller than an African lion. Cats can be cute (as evidenced by this diminutive member of the family), agile (like the tree-climbing margay of Central and South America), but fearsome as well. Jaguars possess the strongest bite relative to their size of any big cat, their powerful jaws capable of puncturing the armour of caimans and even turtles’ reinforced shells, as seen in Episode 2. The best place to see the biggest cat in the Americas is the Brazilian Pantanal, and in August you could join National Geographic photographer Steve Winter on an exclusive safari to the world’s largest wetland in search of this majestic feline.

Pumas are another cat that we see hunting opportunistically on beaches in this part of the world. At the tip of South America, night-vision cameras capture multiple individuals preying on defenceless Magellanic penguins, leaving a trail of feathers and carcasses in their wake. This is no surprise: as the most widely distributed of all wild cats – populations are found in almost every country in the Americas, from the Andes to the Canadian Yukon – pumas have demonstrated remarkable resilience and adaptability. Our puma tracking safaris in Chilean Patagonia allow you to strike out in search of this big cat (which is also known as the cougar or mountain lion) in Chile’s stunning Torres del Paine National Park.

Pumas may be the most widespread of all wild cats, but the family in general has shown itself capable of colonising almost every continent and habitat on earth. We now turn our attention from beaches to mountains, and the highest-altitude cat: the snow leopard. Living high up in the Himalayas, snow leopards must contend with freezing temperatures, scarce prey, and vast territories that make finding a mate a very difficult task. Footage reveals that the spraying of urine in places known to be frequented by both males and females allows snow leopards to advertise their sexual status, and eventually find each other among the mountains. Reserved for the most intrepid of travellers, our Quest for the Snow Leopard Safari takes you out of your comfort zone and deep into the Himalayas in pursuit of this endangered feline.

“Honey” is our first introduction to a radio-collared cat, one whose hi-tech neckwear allows researchers and conservationists to monitor her health and day-to-day life. Radio collars are invaluable when studying elusive cats like Honey – an African leopard – and Canada lynx, a species that we also see in Episode 1. The latter are the most northerly cat, their range extending up into Arctic Canada and Alaska. Although Canada lynx are notoriously difficult to document within their vast frozen habitat, there are plenty of safaris in sub-Saharan Africa on which leopards can be observed, including those in Zambia and Botswana.

Episode 2 introduced us to a clutch of smaller cats, including two whose diets include birds: the bobcat of North America and the black-footed cat of southern Africa. The latter is described as the world’s deadliest cat, with 60% of its hunts ending in success. Elsewhere, South Asia’s fishing cat supervises its young in – you guessed it – fishing, while the distinctive Pallas’s cat is shown making its home on the steppes of Central Asia. The serval is one of the largest cats outside of the seven species of big cat, but a population have made their home in the grassland surrounding Africa’s largest industrial complex in South Africa. Due to larger predators being unable to access the area, servals have become the apex predator here, and there is now nowhere else on earth where a greater density of servals is known to exist.

Episode 2 also gave us a first glimpse at the Bengal tiger, one of the most iconic symbols of India. In contrast to their larger cousins in Siberia, Bengal tigers live instead in deciduous forests and grasslands. Some tigers also stalk their prey through mangroves, where they must adapt to the constantly changing habitat and the whims of the rains and tides. Despite their fame, tigers are in dire straits. Their population has crashed by as much as 95% in the past century, and there are now more tigers in captivity in the United States than there are living wild in the entire world. Thankfully, in 2016, the wild tiger population grew for the first time in 100 years, rising from 3,200 to almost 4,000. There are still plenty of places where one can see these predators in the flesh, and many of our Indian safaris include Bengal tiger excursions as part of their itineraries.

Episode 3 focused on the efforts of cat researchers and conservationists, starting off with Professor Alan Wilson, whose work with habituated African cheetahs has revealed that the world’s fastest land animal’s greatest asset is not its speed, but its agility. Although they can reach speeds of over 60mph, their manoeuvrability is what allows them to pursue and take down different types of prey, turning, weaving and accelerating with lightning speed, their limbs absorbing forces that would break a human leg. African cheetahs can be seen in a number of countries on the continent, including Namibia, where the AfriCat Foundation coordinates conservation projects to protect this endangered big cat.

In Mumbai – home to the highest density of Asiatic leopards in the world – one man has made it his mission to transform the city into a safe place to live for both humans and wild animals. By educating the local population, Krishna Tiwari of the Forest & Wildlife Conservation Society has seen leopard attacks on humans drop significantly. Between 1990 and 2013, there were 176 leopard attacks on humans in Mumbai, but in the last four years, there have been close to none. Our Ultimate Asian Leopard Safari takes places far away from urban centres and delves into true wilderness, including two national parks in India and a trip to Sri Lanka.

Learning more about the world’s cats is the first step towards protecting them. By understanding cats’ natural processes we are better able to provide them with the aid we need, but an essential part of ensuring the survival of all wild felines is giving cats the space they need to live. Although sobering statistics are a cause for concern – lion numbers have halved in the last two decades, for example – there do exist true conservation success stories to take heart from. At the beginning of the century, there were fewer than 100 Iberian lynx left in the wild; today, thanks to committed conservation efforts from people like Vicky Ascensio at Spain’s Zarza de Granadilla breeding centre, there are now more than 500. There are plenty of examples to take inspiration from, and plenty of cats to make the work worthwhile.

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