Africa’s Captivating Big (and Not-So-Big) Cats

By Sarah Gold March 10, 2022


With their sublime stealth and gleaming coats, eyes, claws, and teeth that are as gorgeous as they are deadly, Africa’s wild cats featured in the video above are among the most sought-after sightings on a luxury safari. Happily, your chances of spotting the feline “big three”—lions, leopards, and cheetah—on a Micato safari are excellent. You may be surprised to learn, however, that several other, smaller but equally magnificent African cats may also cross your path on safari. Here’s a rundown of African cats, both big and not-so-big, to keep an eye out for.


The most iconic of all the African wildlife species, the lion tops the must-see lists of many safari-goers. But primed as they may be to spot “The King of Beasts,” travellers are rarely prepared for how absolutely enormous (up to 600 pounds), majestic, and playful these cats are in the wild. Just as astonishing, given their threatened status, is how copious they may seem as you journey through the game parks and conservancies of Southern and East Africa; if you’re lucky, you may spy several prides, engaged in various collective leonine pursuits: hunting, eating, nuzzling their young, and snoozing in the sub-Saharan sun.


Solitary, furtive, and notoriously difficult to see (especially since they prefer resting in leaf-shaded tree branches by day), leopards are often considered the most dazzling of the African cats. Their dapple-patterned coats, as well as beautiful to behold, are also an important adaptive tool for these formidable hunters—by providing effective camouflage in almost any environment, from grassland to desert to rainforest. Though elusive, leopards are in fact plentiful in most of the continent’s top game preserves. You just might need to rely on the expert eyes of your Micato Safari Director to help you spot them.


It’s an undeniable thrill to observe the world’s fastest land animal, whose bursts of speed have been clocked at more than 60 miles per hour. And since cheetah tend to do most of their hunting in the daylight hours (unlike other African big cats), you may actually get to see one in action: stalking its prey (typically antelope species like impala, gazelle, and duiker); rapidly accelerating to give chase; and then dragging its quarry to a shady spot to rest before eating. Witnessing a kill means you might also get bonus sightings of other cheetahs, who tend to congregate around a fresh carcass to share the feast.


Though it shares a habitat—and a similarly black-spotted, buff-colored coat—with the cheetah, the lithe, long-legged serval is shyer, and relatively diminutive (maxing out at around 40 pounds, about a third the size of a full-grown cheetah). But it is a fascinating cat to encounter, especially if you’re fortunate enough to spot one hunting. Once it uses its unusually large ears to detect the movements of a prey animal—usually a small ground-dwelling rodent or reptile—a serval will crouch low, then suddenly leap high into the air to pounce from above.


Common throughout the drier parts of East and Southern Africa, the caracal is a lesser-known but intriguing desert feline, with a deep golden coat and distinctive pointed ear tufts. About the same size as a serval, the caracal hunts some of the same prey—like rock hyraxes and bush vlei rats—but its powerful speed and agility allow it to also take down much larger animals, too, like the occasional small antelope. It is also such a proficient leaper that it has been seen snatching birds in flight out of the air. The only impediment to searching for caracals is that they are typically nocturnal—so you’ll want to scope them out on a night game drive.

Interested in learning more about Africa’s captivating cats? Re-watch the video above to see some of the stunning up-close cat encounters you can experience on a Micato safari and then request your copy of our African Safari brochure to start planning your journey.

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