An Asian lioness in the Gir Forest in Western India

Natural-born killers rich in grace and guile

By Mark Brazil | Nov 8, 2001


When all that separates you from the night is a thin layer of canvas, and when that night consists of a darkness that is thick and soft like a blanket, sounds seem very close.

When it is a deep darkness, peppered from above with the diamond fragments of penetrating stars, then the sounds of a calm African night travel straight to the soul.

The soft monotonous hooting of a scops owl provides a steady rhythm against the trembling grating, sawing and buzzing of the night insects in Botswana’s Okavango delta.

From near the river comes the strange quavering cry of a nightjar trilling its “good-lord-deliver-us” with missionary zeal as it zips across the sky like a heat-seeking missile in search of nocturnal insect prey.

Once, I woke with a start, to an astonishingly powerful rasping like that of an enormous crosscut saw. It was in reality a leopard that had padded its way silently to within a few meters and was proclaiming the land as its own.

Perhaps I should have been afraid, but the sheer wonder of the moment was such that I felt more bewitched than fearful. It rasped again, deeply and powerfully.

A creature strong enough to drag a gazelle bodily into a tree was within a few meters of me, yet its movements were beyond the range of my ears. It padded into, and out of, my camp in utter silence.

On another night, the shadowy film of the canvas above no more than a psychological barrier between me and the depths of the dark, the soft sounds of the almost stillness were suddenly rent by a bellowing roar.

It started deeply, hoarse and throaty, and built up, faster, stronger, then faded away . . . when it was answered from afar by another roar — another lion.

Somewhere in the darkness a killing creature was poised, tearing the night apart with its roars, signaling its territorial stake to others of its kind while sending a warning to all other warm-blooded creatures — the lion walks tonight.

The invisibility of these large predatory cats, combined with their astonishing stealth despite their bulk, is extraordinary. It is an invisibility that cloaks a power capable of bringing down some of the largest and most dangerous creatures on the African savanna. It is not surprising, then, that each sighting of a big cat, whether lion or leopard in Africa, or lion or tiger in Asia, is always thrilling.

The diurnal cheetah seems almost to be made of different stuff. There is no denying that it is one of the large cats, yet its lithe grace is so extreme that there is something of a thoroughbred racer about it.

Its whip-like flexible spine and its elegantly long limbs combine to provide it with high-speed grace even in a high-speed chase.

A sprinter, it does not pursue for long once the element of surprise has been lost. It gives up quickly, harboring its energy for another chance at the hunt.

Not only is it more diurnal than the other large cats but also, for some reason in its evolutionary past, it has lost the ability to sheath its claws. Perhaps they help grip and turn in its high-speed dashes across grasslands in pursuit of prey, like the spikes in a sprinter’s shoes.

The cheetah differs also from its African companions the lion and leopard in rarely if ever making a sound. No nocturnal roaring or ripping for this elegant creature.

Lion, leopard, and cheetah are the most renowned big cats, yet the African bush hides many other lesser-known relatives, a fraction of their size. These other felines carve up the nocturnal niches between them, seeking out prey of different sizes or hunting in slightly different types of habitat. The smallest of them prey on the rodents that forage and burrow under cover of darkness. A whole suite of cat species share the prey base between them, able as a group to tackle almost any creature ranging in size from a buffalo to a vole.

The African night hides more than just food, it conceals the camouflaged hunters too. They are highly effective, highly evolved predators. Here, it is easy to slip into anthropomorphisms — they are like finely tuned killing machines, they are the ferocious felines. Largely nocturnal, their eyes are specialized low-light receptors thanks to a reflective membrane in the retina (the tapetum lucidum), which acts as an image-intensifier and also gives them their eerie green eye-shine at night.

These creatures must keep a careful eye open not just for prey, but for each other too. The bullying larger species are not at all averse to stealing prey from the smaller ones. Nor do the larger species have any qualms about attacking, killing and eating the smaller species. They may have evolved from a distant common ancestor, but that doesn’t mean they are friends.

A pride of lionesses may readily tree a leopard, and the leopard in turn (if it survives the encounter) may well dine on a caracal or any of the smaller cats.

How extraordinary it must have been when the saber-toothed cats roamed the Old World, or when giant marsupial cats ranged across South America, each of them sporting daggerlike canine teeth capable of ripping into now-extinct prey species.

Did the massive saber-toothed cats sometimes do to lions what lions now do to leopards, and what the leopards do to the lesser cats?

The commonality of the warm-blooded diet of virtually the entire cat family is broken by Asia’s extraordinary piscivorous contribution — the fishing cat.

In Asia, the cat family has radiated to fill an extraordinary range of ecological niches, from the craggy heights of the Himalayan and the Tian Shan mountains to the riversides and lakeshores of the lowlands. Whereas the beautiful snow leopard is at home hunting crag-hopping wild sheep in the frigid wintry heights of Nepal, the Asian lion is the dominant predator of the savanna, as the tiger rules in the forest — but the fishing cat is comfortable in the intense humidity of the Indian plains.

The fishing cat lives up to its name, scooping fish, and also frogs, with its paws. Some other small cats will not pass up a reptile either, extending even further the range of prey that the cat family will take.

Japan is home to two wild cats, both confined to small southern islands. The wild cat of Tsushima is barely distinguishable from the Asian wild cat, while the feline denizen of Iriomote Island is slightly more distinct. In their isolation, they have not had to contend or compete with the presence of other nocturnal predators. However, the small size of their “island kingdoms” has kept them in check instead.

Both resemble very closely the smaller of the African cats, occupying similar ecological niches too. However, one other feline resident of Japan is perhaps even more closely allied to African roots. But whereas the leopard only ranges from southern Africa to northeast Asia, and the cougar only occurs from Canada to Patagonia, the familiar, domesticated moggy (Felis cattus) roams almost at will from New Zealand to New Orleans, from Tierra del Fuego to Tokyo, and from Cape Town to Chelyabinsk.

The domesticated cat, in pet and feral form an alien species to its habitats, is a secretive predator that has become more successful than any of its larger cousins — but more on that next time.