Seeing a big cat in the wild is top of many people’s bucket list on safari. But why? William Gray explains the abiding appeal of observing lion, leopard and cheetah in the wild and what makes them so captivating
Early morning sunlight seeped through the bush, a molten tide that gilded the acacia trees and ignited the feathery grass heads. When it touched the lions, sprawled in a clearing, they responded lazily. A young male stood, stretched and flopped, while the rest of the pride rolled in the grass, pawing and nuzzling one another in a feline tangle of tawny limbs and black-tipped tails. They barely glanced in our direction. We were parked just a few metres away, yet the big cats seemed completely indifferent to our presence.
The adoring human, the nonchalant cat — an encounter that’s been played out on just about every safari I’ve been on over the past 30 years. And yet the prospect of a big cat sighting still gets my spine tingling more than anything else. It’s not that I’m particularly into cats. I’m more of a doggy person. Our pet labrador is part of the family — we’re besotted with her — but I rarely yearn to see a jackal or a bat-eared fox. What, then, makes me, or anyone for that matter, a big cat lover?
I can trace the start of my love affair with Africa’s big cats back to 1986, before I’d ever been on safari. My parents had given me a book, Among Predators and Prey by Dutch photographer and filmmaker Hugo van Lawick. The cover of my now battered, well-thumbed copy bears a remarkable image of a Thomson’s gazelle somersaulting over a wild dog, mid-chase. But the book naturally falls open to another image showing a lioness breaking from cover, charging towards the camera, her gaze locked on the slowest of five gazelle fleeing before her. By today’s technically high standards, it’s nothing special — the focus isn’t even razor sharp — but 30-odd years ago, that photograph not only screamed ‘Africa!’ at me, but also perfectly captured the energy and thrill of the hunt.
Is that why we’re all so obsessed with seeing big cats on safari? A sense of anticipation? That split second when dozing pussy cat switches to keen-eyed killer? Never mind the impending doom of the gazelle or zebra… when the lions’ ears prick alert, shoulder muscles bunch and tails start twitching, we’re all on the edge of our seats, poised for drama, our money on the cats.
“We had an amazing safari — we saw lions make a kill!” Have you noticed how often you hear people judging the success of their safari by whether it featured big cats hunting? I don’t believe it’s the actual process of killing that holds us rapt. We’re not all baying for blood. Several years ago, during a visit to Kenya’s Tsavo East National Park, I witnessed lions hunting a waterbuck next to my tent. There was no pleasure in hearing the death throes of the antelope, the crunching of teeth on sinew and bone, or of seeing the cats, bloody-faced at dawn, pulling long coils of intestines from the corpse of their victim. That’s what big cats do. Rather than a macabre fascination with the act of killing, we simply have a desire to witness these supreme predators in action — just as a motor enthusiast admires the most powerful, beautifully made racing cars at full throttle, but flinches if they crash.
I once spent a memorable few days in the southern Serengeti. Our camp was pitched in a shady grove of acacia trees a short distance from the Ndutu Plains where, from January to March, wildebeest gather in huge numbers to give birth. One afternoon, we found a female cheetah with three almost fully-grown cubs lying up in asparagus scrub on the edge of the plains. Every time a herd of Thomson’s gazelle or wildebeest wandered past, the cats were instantly alert — four spotted heads turning in unison to follow them. We joined the cheetahs’ vigil, watching them and their prey from a respectful few hundred metres. Five hours passed. The cheetah never got quite close enough to launch an attack (and I would still love to see one at full pelt), but it was a privilege just to spend time in their company, watching them interact with one another.