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Africa Big cat watching in Africa

Lions, leopards and cheetahs.

Words: Brian Jackman
Leopard image: Peter Blackwell/BBC NHU

For 30 years I have followed the big cats of Africa, and their magic never fades. They are such mysterious creatures, and in their comings and goings they are like spirits from another world that I am sometimes privileged to enter.

Cheetahs are easy to find because they hunt in daylight. Leopards are much harder. Renowned for being shy and elusive, they are are, to me, the most beautiful of cats, the icing on the cake. But it is lions which make my heart beat faster. Even at rest, their presence conveys a tingling sense of imminent drama, as if violence is never far away.

It was the lions of the Masai Mara that first caught my imagination. That was in the early 1970s, when Jonathan Scott, who was then working as a safari guide, introduced me to the pride we called 'The Marsh Lions'. Dominated by three magnificent males - Scar, Brando and Mkubwa - they were a powerful pride, and for five years, I shared their lives. At first I found it hard to tell one lion from another, but in time they became as familiar as old friends. Never in our wildest dreams did Jonathan or I ever imagine that the descendants of the pride we knew back then would one day become the stars of Big Cat Diary.

1. Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya
If you're hoping to see all three big cats in action, the Mara is unsurpassed. So is its setting on the Masai plains at the foot of the Siria Escarpment - 1,530 kmĀ² of rolling grasslands veined with seasonal watercourses. Through it all flows the Mara River, with its hippo pools and monster crocs - a formidable barrier for the migrating wildebeest and zebras when they pour in from the Serengeti. July to October is the time to find the herds massed in the Mara, but lions (more than 20 resident prides) are the main attraction.

2. Samburu National Reserve, Kenya
This small but spectacular reserve gives visitors a dramatic taste of northern Kenya and its unique dry-country animals: oryx, gerenuk, reticulated giraffe and rare Grevy's zebra. All three big cats can be found here, as well as elephant, buffalo and hippo. At the heart of the reserve, flowing through doum palm groves and thick riverine forest, is the Ewaso Nyiro, without whose waters the game could not survive in this arid region.

3. Serengeti National Park, Tanzania.
A national park the size of the Netherlands, renowned for its numerous prides of black-maned lions and huge herds of plains game. The abundance of game - particularly during the Serengeti migration, involving more than a million wildebeest and 200,000 zebras - makes this a cat-watcher's paradise. The short-grass plains are classic cheetah country, especially around the Gol Kopjes or wherever the Thomson's gazelle herds happen to be. The Seronera Valley is one of Africa's leopard hotspots, and lions are everywhere. But timing is crucial. In the dry season, all life moves north, leaving the southern plains disappointingly bare and empty. For the best cat-watching, be like the wildebeest and follow the rains.

4. Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania
A unique lost world complete with its own forests, flamingo lakes, resident herds of plains game, rare black rhinos and some of Africa's biggest tuskers. Leopards are seen regularly around the crater rim, cheetahs come and go, while the famous Ngorongoro lions are always present - though not in such numbers since the El Nino rains of 1998, when floods drove half the prides from their territories. But the survivors and their cubs still make this one of the most rewarding places for observing lion behaviour. Most visitors stay at one of the three lodges on the crater rim, descending to the crater floor on all-day game drives.

5. Tarangire National Park, Tanzania
So easy to reach but strangely neglected. Many visitors hurry on by, heading for Lake Manyara and the Serengeti. Maybe they have heard about the Tarangire tsetse flies. But what they are missing is Tanzania's fourth-largest park and a landscape dominated by elephants and baobab trees. Leopards can pop up anywhere in this rugged, broken country, cheetahs occur on the northern savannah and Tarangire lions tend to be wilder than some of their more habituated counterparts in, say, Ngorongoro or the Mara.

6. Mana Pools National Park, Zimbabwe
This wild and beautiful park richly deserves its World Heritage Site status. It lies in the Lower Zambezi Valley and is still worth visiting in spite of Zimbabwe's current troubles. Beneath the trees, the vegetation is sparse - an ideal habitat for walking safaris. And this is the point of including Mana Pools. No guarantees, of course, but if you fancy the idea of tracking lions on foot with an armed guide, Mana Pools is hard to beat. And Zimbabwe's safari guides - experts like Ivan Carter and the veteran John Stevens - are probably the best in the business.

7. South Luangwa National Park, Zambia
The Luangwa Valley is one of the great wildlife strongholds of Southern Africa. Through it all winds the Luangwa River, with its riverine woodlands and grassy dambos - old oxbow lagoons frequented by hippos and elephants. Typical animals of this pristine parkland are kudu, puku and Thornicroft's giraffe - a subspecies not found elsewhere. Lions, too, are commonly seen. But for safari visitors, the leopard is Luangwa's top cat, with night drives providing the best sightings.

8. The Okavango Delta, Botswana
A wildlife stronghold rivalled only by the Serengeti, though the watery world of the delta is very different from East Africa. Lying in the northern Kalahari, this is Africa's biggest oasis - wooded islands, floodplains and papyrus swamps braided by a maze of channels. One third is protected by the Moremi Game Reserve. The rest consists of vast wilderness concession areas which are leased to private safari camp operators. To explore the delta, you can set out on day and night game drives or glide silently along in a mokoro (dugout canoe). For the more adventurous, there are private safaris with expert guides, walking safaris, horseback safaris and even elephant-back safaris. Bird life is spectacular. Mammals include huge breeding herds of elephants, swamp-dwelling sitatunga, red lechwe and spotted-necked otters. Large lion prides roam the drier areas. Leopard and cheetah sightings are consistently high, and the delta is probably the top spot in Africa for wild dogs. Go between July and September, but pack warm clothes for cold dawn game drives. There are dozens of camps to choose from, but favourites for the big cats are those in the drier areas.

9. Sabi Sand Private Game Reserve, South Africa
For big cats, nowhere else in South Africa can touch this reserve on the western edge of Kruger. Though much smaller than its neighbour, game-viewing and accommodation in the Sabi Sands are far superior. Here, in open vehicles, accompanied by rangers and trackers, you are virtually guaranteed close-ups of lions, leopards and cheetahs, and possibly even wild dogs. The reserve itself is actually a mosaic of privately run safari concession areas, each with its own lodges or tented camps. But the lowveld habitat is so dense that you are seldom aware of your neighbours.

10. Okonjima, Namibia
Namibia is home to more than 20 per cent of the world's cheetahs. The trouble is that most of them are to be found on private ranchlands. If you want to see cheetahs in the wild, visit Etosha National Park, which is also good for lions.

From an original article in the February 2001 issue of BBC Wildlife magazine - Cat-watching.

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