Big Cat Facts

Given the popularity that our cats at home have seen since we took them into our houses, it is no surprise their larger (and for the most part untameable) relatives also leave a strong impression on us. Perhaps one reason cats have fascinated mankind for centuries is due to our shared and gratifying history both in the past and present, and they are the most successful carnivorous group in the natural world, surpassing even dogs, fish, and reptiles.

The popularity of cats extends even outside their natural domain. They inspire songs, books, and impact people’s lives mythologically and realistically. While big cats share traits with housecats, they are larger, untamed, and pose greater dangers while being hard to see in the wild. Observing them in person can be thrilling, especially for those determined to witness these amazing animals firsthand.

The recent film ‘The Secret Life of Big Cats,’ directed by wildlife filmmaker Martin Dohrm, provides unique insights into the hidden lives of these majestic creatures. While BBC is known for its excellent wildlife documentaries on big cats, Dohrm’s independent production offers a new viewpoint, having previously worked on BBC productions with (Sir) David Attenborough, showcasing seven big cats in his debut documentary.

Thanks to a deep passion for cats, especially the Lion and Tiger, I was loved the series and was even inspired to write about it. Both my work and that of Dohrm (as he reiterates in the opening of his documentary) it aims to highlight the importance of studying these exotic animals facing the threat of disappearance, sparking inspiration to protect them.



(Panthera Tigris)

Colour Brownish red with black stripes and paler underside
Length 3m (10 feet)
Weight 300kg (660 lb)
Habitat Tropical forest and grassland
Range India, Nepal, China, Sumatra, Thailand, Bhutan, and Malaysia. Extinct in Java and Bali
Diet Deer, wild pigs, wild cattle, bears and rabbits.
Status Endangered

The Tiger, larger than the Lion, embodies a fearsome and majestic aura with a cunning, clever, and untameable nature. Despite their close relation, distinguishing some of their bones is challenging, although the Tiger’s skull exhibits a more catlike structure than the Lion’s. The most notable differences lie in their colour, shape, and habitat preferences (the most evident feature is the Lion bearing the majestic mane while the Tiger has the regal stripes). Lions roam savannahs and grasslands, while Tigers thrive in jungles and forests, occasionally venturing into grasslands but showing a preference for the former.

Tigers can survive in cool climates besides tropical forests. In zoos, Lions and Tigers have been introduced, and some have become friends or mates, resulting in Ligers (whose fathers are Lions and mothers are Tigers) or Tigons (vice versa). Lions and Tigers have versatile roars representing territory, affection, or calling for a mate. The Lion’s full roar is inspiring and aggressive, while the Tiger’s is terror striking.

Tigers are versatile hunters with keen intellects and outshine Lions in liveliness and activity. Opportunistic in their hunting, Tigers pursue their prey day and night, with a preference for nocturnal hunting. Tiger cubs learn hunting skills from their mothers during the first three years of life. Their diet includes deer, wild pigs, and even larger animals like Indian bison and wild buffalo. Bears, such as the sloth bear and moon bear, are also part of a Tiger’s diet, and they demonstrate remarkable hunting capabilities, avoiding porcupine quills to access vulnerable spots and even taking down crocodiles or scooping fish from water.

There have been rare occasions where Tigers leap into the air to swat flying birds and waiting for monkeys to descend from trees before attacking them. As with all cats, Tigers kill by a bite to the neck or throat. In many ways, Tigers are more intelligent than Lions and as cubs are easy to tame as Lions are. In historical times, young Tigers after being separated from their parents in the wild were given to Kings or ancient rulers as presents and were kept in their own captive space to be exhibited by visitors or people in the kingdom. Biologists and other people who have hand-reared Tigers find them somewhat splendid pets but that notion is debunked because the older Tigers get, the more unreliable or dangerous they are which is the same for Lions.

Tigers, like most cats, hunt and live alone, but they can be social when a male and female come together to have cubs. The Tigress gives birth to three or four cubs after a 16-week gestation period, each weighing up to 1.5 kg (3 lb). The cubs are born striped and start eating meat after six weeks of suckling on their mother’s milk. At 13 weeks, they become playful and follow their mother, learning to hunt at seven months. However, only half of them survive this challenging period. After two years, surviving cubs become independent adults, occasionally forming temporary groups before going their separate ways.

Tigresses breed every third or fourth year. In areas with abundant prey, territories are small and patrollable within a day, but in scarcer food regions, their range can extend up to 60km (37 miles) taking several weeks to patrol. Territorial fights occur occasionally. Tigers are known to share their kills with familiar individuals. Few animals can harm Tigers, except prey that can fight back and packs of wolves or Indian wild dogs (dholes) capable of taking on and killing a lone Tiger.

While a threat to an adult Tiger is another Tiger, the Tiger’s main enemy is man, who hunts them for various reasons, including killing cattle (or being a threat to man) and using their body parts for medicine. Human activities, such as deforestation for farmland and settlements, also threaten their natural habitat. Tigers may attack humans if provoked or unable to find their usual prey, but such incidents are rare compared to leopard attacks. Tiger populations have drastically declined over the years, prompting conservation efforts like Project Tiger in India and Operation Tiger by WWF (World Wildlife Fund for Nature) to establish reserves and protect and preserve numerous and remaining Tiger populations.

Snow Leopard
(Panthera Unica)

Colour White and yellow with black spots
Length Up to 2.3m (7ft and 6 inches)
Weight Unrecorded
Habitat Snowy mountains of up to 3000m (10,000 ft)
Range India, Nepal, China, Bhutan and Tibet
Diet Ibex, markhor, takin, deer and yak
Status Vulnerable

Snow leopards, despite their appearance, are not related to leopards in any way and if one looks at them closely, the faces of these cats betray their true family connection; they are close relatives of tigers, characterized by their slender-built bodies and long tails. The most striking feature of snow leopards is their lovely dense fur, which makes them appear larger than they actually are. These elusive predators inhabit cold and snow-covered mountainous regions throughout the year, relying on their thick coats for survival. Their diet mainly consists of small birds and mammals, with mountain goats being their preferred prey. Snow leopards have their own territories, often covering several square kilometers, where they live and hunt. Mating occurs in summer, and they give birth to litters of up to two or three kittens in spring. While they rarely pose a threat to humans, they can be a menace to domestic animals. Once hunted for their fur, snow leopards are now protected and making a comeback, though their wild population remains unknown.

(Felis Concolor)

Colour Sandy or grey brown with pale underside
Length Up to 2.4m
Weight Up to 120kg (260 lb)
Habitat Forest, woodland, plain and desert
Range Canada and the Americas
Diet Deer, llamas and marmots
Status Least concern

Pumas, are the largest of the big cats that are smaller than Lions and Tigers. They are versatile and wide-ranging, found throughout the Americas from the Rocky Mountains to Southern Patagonia. They have a simple brown coloration that blends well with their surroundings, aiding in their stealthy approach to prey and are also known as cougar, panther, catamount, and mountain lion, they prey on deer and various other mammals and birds. Despite being able to growl, hiss, screech, and purr, pumas cannot roar due to their close relation to house cats. They live solitary lives in large overlapping territories and briefly come together to mate. Females give birth to three to four kittens and care for them for over a year, and despite attacks on humans, they are not endangered.

(Panthera Leo)

Colour Yellow or sandy brown. Cubs bear spots which fade away as they grow older
Length Standard of 2.7m (9ft)
Weight 240kg (530lb)
Habitat Savannah and grassland
Range Restricted to Southern and East Africa. A small population is also present in the (Western) Indian Province of Gujarat
Diet Zebra, antelope such as wildebeest, warthogs, buffalo and giraffe
Status Vulnerable

Often called the ‘King of the Animals,’ Lions, like Tigers (known as the ‘Lord of the Animals’), require no introduction thanks to their immense popularity in movies, TV, literature, and music (factual and mythological), and their historical connection to humans dates back over a thousand years and since then they have been seen as symbolic of nobility, positive power, strength, respect and even romance.

While known as the ‘King of the Jungle’ in some parts of the world, Lions predominantly inhabit open grassland and savannah although In Uganda, East Africa, a few Lions may live in forested areas. The endangered Asiatic or Indian Lion is the only Lion species found outside Africa and is known to be a true forest dweller. Unlike other cats, Lions are the most social of all cats, living in groups called ‘Prides’ consisting of several related females and their cubs. They are led by one or two males who may be brothers or hunting colleagues. The most unique aspect of Lions as compared to other cats is the evident differentiation between the larger male and the smaller female, thanks to the mane which is present only in the male who despite the size of his recognizable characteristic (often associated with a crown) nevertheless is larger than the female.

Male Lions are not directly in charge of a pride but (fight to) protect it, while females are mainly in charge. The males’ duty is to safeguard the pride from threats, such as hyenas, jackals, leopards, and more so other male lions who pose a risk to cubs. Infanticide is more common in Lions compared to other big cats. If intruding males take over a pride successfully, they chase away the ruling male, some adult cubs, and kill the younger ones before mating with the Lionesses to sire new cubs. Exiled males repeat this pattern when they find new prides. Like with Tigers, Lions mark their territory with urine and facial contact, the latter of which is affection among most Lions although the marking of urine warns rival Lions to keep their distance. Young males grow their mane in the second or third year, leaving their pride to establish their own. Within two or three years, their mane reaches full length, and they start protecting their own pride.

A few Lions do not necessarily live in prides and hunt quite successfully on their own but living in a Pride always has its advantages in protection and helps with raising cubs. They hunt during the day and night, with a preference for nighttime when they can use darkness to their advantage. Lions often follow herds of zebra and antelope, particularly wildebeest, which are their staple diet. Despite being known as lazy hunters due to spending much of their time sleeping, they still manage to hunt quite successfully. While Lions mostly work together in catching those animals which have strayed far from their herd (or left behind), they prefer to move silently in keeping low until they have approached within a few meters before they charge and delivering a fatal bite to the neck or throat. Males eat first, followed by females and cubs. Females do most of the hunting, but males also hunt and are stronger hunters, especially those without a pride.

Male Lions always step in to help if Lionesses struggle to bring down prey. While the African Lion is not an endangered species, this does not deny the fact that their homes are being taken over to provide for human settlements and land for cattle which sometimes results in Lions attacking cattle and goats and thus being shot by farmers for it which is very much what is causing the endangerment of Lions in India to a drastic measure unfortunately.  Much like Tigers, Lions may attack humans when unable to hunt their usual prey due to age or disability, or if provoked. While Lions that prey on humans are considered a threat and often shot, such attacks are less common than Tiger attacks. Historically, some native tribes saw killing Lions as a rite of passage into manhood, and Lion hunting with firearms has been popular among certain groups. Nowadays much like Tiger hunting in India and Asia, Lion hunting is increasingly becoming illegal in many parts of Africa, and the Lion population is stabilizing.

(Panthera Pardus)

Colour Pale, yellowish or orange brown with black spots
Length Up to 2.3m (7ft and 6 inches)
Weight Up to 70kg (150 lb)
Habitat Tropical forest, savannah and grassland
Range Present throughout Africa (extinct on Zanzibar), India, Sri Lanka, China and Southeast Asia
Diet Deer, antelope, monkeys, birds and rodents
Status Vulnerable

The elusive leopard is known for beautiful spots and unique ability to climb trees. Their roars mimic the sound of sawing wood, and they prefer hunting during the half-light of evening. Leopards are not as big as their larger relatives, the Lion and the Tiger and where these predators roam, the leopard is always eclipsed by both depending on location Solitary animals, leopards come together only for mating or sharing meals, and their spots provide excellent camouflage in both shade and dappled backgrounds. Often, they choose a safe spot to rest as many times as they wish without disturbance before setting out to hunt, accompanied by a yawn, stretch, and claw-sharpening (on branches or tree stumps). Their main prey includes deer, antelope, and monkeys. Leopards use their tree-climbing ability to advantage, surprising their prey with a swift leap and deadly bite from above or silently stalking and striking with teeth and claws. Both sides of the teeth contain what are known as ‘camassials’ that act like shears, effortlessly cutting through tough hides. They take their prey high into trees where it is safe from other predators or scavengers. Each leopard has their own home range or hunting area which may overlap with the ranges of other leopards. Their urinary scent marks ranges in order to let others know that they are present. When a female is ready to mate, the scent of her urine changes and becomes a signal for nearby or neighbouring males. She may mate with several of them and then leaves them to carry on their respective lives. After a 14-week gestation period, she produces one to 4 cubs, hiding them away in quiet sheltered corners between rocks or under bushes in dense foliage. There she suckles them and eventually starts bringing them meat. More often, the smallest and weakest members may not survive which leaves more food for those who have. Leopards are not an endangered species although they may face persecution due to killing goats and sheep. Attacks on humans are not uncommon which exacerbates killings of leopards.

(Panthera Onca)

Colour Pale buff yellowish brown with black spots and rosettes
Length Up to 2.2m (7ft and 3 inches)
Weight Up to 110kg (240 lb). As with most species, males are bigger than females
Habitat Tropical forests and upland plains. Often near lakes or rivers
Range South and Central America
Diet Deer, wild pigs, rodents and fish
Status Near-Threatened

At first glance, jaguars may resemble leopards with round ears, long tail, tawny skin, and black spots, but their body is thicker and seemingly bungling, and their face is shorter, broader, and darker. Also unlike leopards, the spots of a jaguar are arranged in rings with a dark spot in the middle. Still jaguars may be well-descended from leopards that came into North America from what is now Central and South America during the Ice Age. Conditions there were slightly different for them and as a result they evolved into slightly equally-different animals. Jaguars are usually found in forests and marshland, usually far from people and close to lakes, rivers or running bodies of water. Much like Tigers and leopards, they swim well and enjoy keeping cool in water. Also, like leopards, jaguars are capable of climbing trees while hunting birds and mammals. Older jaguars become heavy and less willing to take to the trees, being accustomed to mainly hunting on the ground. As with most cats, jaguars live a solitary life save for when they come together to have young, patrolling large territories in a constant search for food. Much like leopards, while they are fast runners they are only able to afford short sprints (although much shorter than those of leopards). The scent of females changes to attract males from other territories when she is ready to mate, and up to seven may follow her and fight over her before she mates with one or several of them, a trait shared in leopards upon which she becomes pregnant. Up to four kittens are born after 14 weeks while she hides them in dense bush. Their first dietary requirement is their mother’s milk but they gradually take to eating meat when she brings it to them. They stay with their mothers for a year or more before wandering off to find territories of their own. When hunting, jaguars pad silently along forest trails or long grass, appearing to freeze at the sight of prey, then stalking and crouching before finally springing. It is mainly terrestrial mammals that are the common prey of jaguars such as wild pigs including the peccary, rodents such as the capybara, deer and on rare occasions, tapirs. With their powerful jaws and unusually large teeth, they are even able to saturate the shells of turtles and one commonality between them and leopards is their ability to kill snakes by snapping their heads off in a single bite. Jaguars find it easier to hunt domestic animals whose owners retaliate by shooting the cats even though by and large, they are no endangered. Sadly the skins of those jaguars who have been killed, are a demand in world markets which makes it worth killing every jaguar. Between 2008 and 2012 at least 15 jaguars were killed by farmers, one of the hunts in (June of) the former year having occurred due to the jaguar having killed a person although since then there have been no further instances of jaguars killing people. Still the jaguar is the least likely of all big cats to kill humans or become a maneater and most attacks on humans occur when the cat is provoked or accosted. Yet the jaguar does not count as an endangered species.

(Acinonyx Jubatus)

Colour Tawny yellow with black spots
Length 2m  (6ft and 6 inches)
Weight 65kg (145lb)
Habitat Savannah and grassland
Range Southern and East Africa. Also inhabits parts of South Asia but is very rare there
Diet Warthog and antelope such as wildebeest, impala, bushbuck
Status Vulnerable

More than any other of the big cats (or cats in general), the cheetah whose name means ‘dog cat’ is well suited in build for speed. With their long slender legs and tail and lithe muscular body, in a chase across the plains, cheetahs can overtake and outmanoeuvre all but the fastest of antelopes for food. It is not surprising then that this animal is the representation of speed. Cheetahs look a lot like long legged leopards but the difference is that the cheetah is taller than the leopard and unlike the leopard bears facial markings known as ‘teardrop’ markings which make it appear as if the cat has been crying or shedding tears, something which leopards do not bear. Leopards are stronger than cheetahs and have been known to kill them during encounters at which cheetahs tend to stay out of the way of leopards, not wanting to risk their ire. Cheetah ears are also more rounder than leopard ears. The coat of the cheetah is tawny, paler from the underside between chin and tail and their chest is deep with their body’s rear half slender, packing the hind legs with muscular power that drive the cat forward at the beginning of a run. Long legs and a flexible spine, combine to provide the enormously long stride that is the secret to a cheetah’s speed. From a standing start, cheetahs can reach 80km (50mph) but can tire very quickly. In a speeding contest between a cheetah and an African wild dog, it is the latter which is bound to be the winner. Adult cheetahs seldom travel together but related cheetahs on occasion will form groups although their hunting is done individually yet sharing of the food can be done with each other. Each cheetah needs 8-10sq km (3-4sq miles) of good grassland to live in, even as far as dry areas is concerned where there are fewer prey options about. Cheetahs prefer daytime hunts and they begin by sitting on a high point such as a small hill, scanning their surroundings and sniffing the wind. At the first glance of prey, they walk to within a few hundred meters, then starts running, singling one animal from the group and pursuing the prey until the animal falls or tires out which makes it easier for the cheetah to deliver. Antelopes such as gazelle, impala and young topi are their main diet but they will also hunt zebra foals, hares and on certain occasions birds. Females that are ready to mate select one or more partners and remain with them for up to two or three weeks. Depending on the number of males, they will try guard her jealously from the others and fights may break out. After becoming pregnant, she produces between three and six kittens after 13 weeks and they stay in a den with their mother for several weeks. By the time of their emergence, the ones larger than the others will be the likely survivors since normally up to half the kittens in a litter die before they are a year old. Those kittens who do survive follow their mother closely, standing by her while she hunts, then moving in to share the kill. By the time they are half-grown, they may also partake in the hunt. Despite not being as strong as leopards (or Lions or Tigers for that matter), cheetah mothers guard their cubs viciously against the attacks of other animals while the cubs begin to learn the art of speed which is their main asset in hunting and avoiding capture. The only danger to the cheetah is overtaking of habitat and being shot to protect cattle otherwise this cat is not endangered.



Wildlife Adventures

  1. Camp Life on the Satpura Range (1877)
  2. Maneaters of Tsavo (1907)
  3. African Game Trails (1909)
  4. Theodore Roosevelt in Africa (1909)
  5. Lion Spearing (1926)
  6. Born Free (1960)

Natural History

  1. Theodore Roosevelt and the Wild Animals of the World (1909)
  2. Life Histories of African Game Animals (1910)
  3. Book of the Lion (1913)
  4. Africa’s Big Five (1995)
  5. The Big Cats and their Fossil Relatives (1997)
  6. Tigers: A Portrait of the Animal World (2013)
  7. Lions: A Portrait of the Animal World (2013)


  1. Insight Guides: Singapore
  2. Insight Guides: Kenya
  3. Insight Guides: Thailand
  4. Insight Guides Namibia
  5. Insight Guides South Africa
  6. Lion of Singapore (2020)


  1. Born Free (March 14th 1996)
  2. To Walk With Lions (June 4th 1999)
  3. White Lion (February 19th 2010)



  1. Dublin Zoo (1997)
  2. The national parks of Africa: East Africa (1999)
  3. The national parks of Africa: Southern Africa (1999)
  4. Auckland Zoo (2000)
  5. Expoza Travel Ireland (2003)
  6. Expoza Travel Singapore (2007)
  7. Expoza Travel Kenya (2007)
  8. Expoza Travel South Africa (2007)
  9. Expoza Travel Namibia (2007)
  10. Expoza Travel Southern Africa (2007)
  11. Expoza Travel Thailand (2007)
  12. Mountains of the Monsoon (2009)
  13. Hunt for the Red Lion (2015)
  14. Virginia McKenna’s Born Free (2016)
  15. Thailand: Earth’s Tropical Paradise (2017)
  16. The Secret Life of Big Cats (2022)
  17. End of the Big Cats? (2022)


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