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Digital Subscriptions > Travel Africa > October-December 2018 (84) > BIG CAT LOVERS


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.

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Special Wildlife Issue, celebrating Africa's fauna • Big Cat lovers • Understanding elephants • In praise of primates • Painted dogs • Snakes • Birds • The wildlife in forests, deserts and rivers... and much more!