Big cats are some of the most alluring wildlife in the world, and the most fear-enducing of all wild cats. There are a number of types of big cats ranging across Africa, Asia and Central and South America… but believe it or not, the exact number of big cat species is actually open to debate.
There are, in fact, a number of different ways that people define which of the 38 cat species around the world should be classed as ‘big cats’:
1. The technical view is that the term ‘big cat’ refers only to the five members of the Panthera genus. These are jaguar, leopard, lion, snow leopard, and tiger. However, it’s worth noting that the snow leopard was only included in the Panthera genus in 2008, and there is some controversy amongst biologists about classing them as Panthera, rather than in a separate genus.
2. There is another school of thought that says that big cats are defined by having the ability to roar. Jaguar, leopard, lion, and tiger all have an adapted larynx and a unique part of the throat called a hyoid apparatus which gives them the ability to make a deep, loud roaring sound. The lion has a famously loud road that can be heard up to 10 km away, thanks to having the longest larynx of all types of big cats.
3. Some people take the view that size is all, so include some additional large cats such as cheetah, cougar, and lynx as a type of big cat.
4. Then there are a whole range of different types of big cats that have been bred by humans as hybrid animals (leopon, liger, tigon, and more)… but these have been left out of this list!
With these caveats in mind, let’s explore all big cats in some details:
A jaguar stalks towards the camera
Group name: Shadow.
Size: 0.75 meters high, weighing up to 150 kg.
Speed: 80 km per hour.
Diet: Jaguars are known to almost anything they can catch, including deer, crocodiles, snakes, monkeys, deer, sloths, tapirs, turtles, eggs, frogs and toads, and fish.
Range & Habitat: Jaguars are found in South and Central America, preferring wet lowland habitats, swampy savannas, and tropical rain forests. Their favorite habitat is in the tropical and subtropical forests, though they are now classed as near threatened due to habitat loss.
Best places to see jaguars: Pantanal Brazil – Cuiabá River & Caiman Ecological Reserve, Manú National Park in Peru, Iwokrama Forest in Guyana, Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize, Calakmul Biosphere Reserve in Mexico, Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica.
Leopard lying on a tree branch
Group name: Leap.
Size: 1 meter high, weighing up to 100 kg.
Speed: 56 km per hour.
Diet: Leopards are opportunistic carnivores and hunt a wide range of prey such as jackals, antelopes, gazelles, monkeys, duiker, eland, impala, wildebeest, and more.
Range & Habitat: Leopards live in more places than any other big cat, and are comfortable in almost any habitat, including deserts, rainforests, woodlands, grassland savannas, mountain, scrub, and swamps. Leopards are one of the few big game species found outside national parks.
Best places to see leopards: Londolozi Game Reserve, South Africa, Moremi Game Reserve, Botswana, Samburu National Reserve, Kenya, South Luangwa National Park, Zambia.
A lioness scouting for prey
Group name: Pride.
Size: 1.2 meters, weighing up to 225kg.
Speed: At a maximum speed of 80 kilometers per hour, the lion is the second fastest land animal in Africa (and the world).
Diet: African lions are apex predators and generally hunt the larger animals in their surroundings – buffaloes, rhinos, zebras, giraffes, and antelopes.
Range & Habitat: Lions tend to prefer grassland, savanna, dense scrub, and open woodland. They are found across sub-Saharan Africa, and also in a small part of north-east India.
Best places to see African lions: Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, South Africa, Kruger National Park, South Africa, Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania, Okavango Delta, Botswana.
The snow leopard – is it a type of big cat?
Group name: Given how solitary snow leopards are, there is no collective noun for them.
Size: 0.6 meters high, weighing up to 75 kg.
Speed: 80 km per hour.
Diet: Snow leopards will eat almost anything they can catch, often hunting animals much larger than themselves. Their main prey includes wild sheep and goats, pikas, hares, and game birds.
Range & Habitat: Snow leopards can be found throughout high mountain ranges in Central Asia, including the Himalayas and the southern Siberian mountains in Russia.
Best places to see snow leopards: Hemis National Park is a high altitude park in the Himalayas, and home to around 200 snow leopards – the highest density in any protected area in the world.
A tiger relaxing on the ground
Group name: Streak or Ambush.
Size: 1.2 meters high, weighing up to 310 kg.
Speed: 65 km per hour.
Diet: Tigers have a broad diet, ranging from termites to elephant calves. However, the core of their diet is medium to large-sized mammals such as deer and goats.
Range & Habitat: Tigers occupy a variety of habitats in Asia from tropical and evergreen forests, to mangrove swamps, grasslands, and savanna.
Best places to see tigers: Ranthambore National Park, Raghu Ramaswamy Sundarban National Park, Bandhavgarh National Park and Pench National Park in India, Zhan Tian Chitwan National Park in Nepal, Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park in Bhutan
Are CheetahsBig Cats?
Although cheetahs are not in the Panthera genus (they are in their own Acinonyx genus) – and are smaller in size and weight than all cats in Panthera genus – they are sometimes referred to as a type of big cat.
Unlike all other species in the cat family, cheetahs do not have retractable claws, rather they are more dog-like, and are only semi-retractable. As the fastest land animal cheetahs need super traction while running, and their protruding claws act like running shoes.