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Cats of Africa: And where to find them

Cats of Africa: And where to find them

Recently updated on May 16th, 2024 at 06:26 pm

From the rainforests in Uganda to the dry dusty plains of the Sahara Desert, Africa is teeming with wildlife and is home to some of the world’s most fascinating predators. While there is a long list of predators roaming throughout the whole continent, there is none more iconic than the cats of Africa. While most of these impressive cats need no introduction, it is the smaller ones hiding in the back seat that not too many people know about.

A group of lions drinking water from a river

While there are ten cats species in Africa, Adventure World Travel has compiled a list of the top African cat species you may encounter on your safari:

The big cats

1. African Lion (Panthera Leo)


The most recognisable and certainly the largest of the African cats, lions are high up on the food chain and are an apex predator not to be messed with. While these large cats tower over their fellow African cats, lions are the second largest cat in the world behind the tiger.

These social cats can be spotted lying around, 16 to 20 hours a day of lazing and sleeping to be precise. They are found in large numbers of around 15 – 30 individuals, which make up what’s called a pride, making it a bit easier to find them on a safari, unlike some of the other cats in Africa.

While lions are one of the easiest cats to spot on safari, their numbers are in a little bit of trouble as they are under threat of habitat destruction, human and lion conflict and poaching.

Best places to see lions: While sightings of lions are never guaranteed, the following top 3 “lion hotspots” will set safari goers up for success.

  • East Africa – Masai Mara and Serengeti, having one of the highest densities of lions in the world.
  • Botswana – The northern Botswana circuit of Chobe, Savute, Linyanti, Moremi and the Okavango Delta not only have a healthy population of lions, it gives you the opportunity to see how they have adapted differently to their surroundings.
  • South Africa – Greater Kruger National Park, home to majority of South Africa’s lions, as well as a premier wildlife destination. If you are lucky enough you may even spot white lions in the Timbavati region.

2. African Leopard (Panthera Pardus Pardus)

The elusive leopard is a definite favourite among safari-goers with its beautiful rosette coat and the fact that it becomes a bit of a game to try and spot them in amongst the trees (almost like playing a game of where’s wally).

Leopards are often confused with their American counterpart, the jaguar, and its fellow African Cat, the cheetah. The best advice we can give you is to look closely at their markings. Putting jaguars aside, as they are on another continent, cheetahs have solid black spots and a tear like mark on their face, whereas leopards have broken spots, or what is known as a rosette.

While leopards are the most widely distributed big cat in Africa, like the lion, they too are under threat from humans and with no accurate estimation of numbers, due to their secretive nature, they have been listed as vulnerable.

Best places to see a leopard: While they are the most widely distributed African big cat, they are extremely difficult to spot, so here are some tips on the best places to find them from our African experts.

  • South Luangwa National Park, Zambia – With estimations of one leopard to every two square kilometres and with an area in the park known as “the valley of the leopard” this park is up the top of the list. The leopards here are famously known for being bold and are often seen in the middle of the day.
  • Sabi Sands Game Reserve, South Africa – Sabi Sands is world famous for its leopard sightings and is one of our favourite places to send travellers who has seeing a leopard high on their bucket list. It’s the rangers in this area that know these leopards inside out, giving safari goers a very good chance of getting up close to these otherwise elusive cats.

3. Cheetah (Acinonyx Jubatus)

Introducing the third largest big cat in Africa and certainly the fastest of the lot, the cheetah can be one of the harder animals to spot on safari. They are normally found hiding in tall grass right in front of your eyes so the time of day and season can play a part in whether or not you find these beautiful cats.

When they aren’t hiding and sleeping they are out in the middle of the day hunting, this is mainly due to the bigger “bullies” otherwise known as lions and hyenas sleeping at this time. It is the black “tear” marks under their eyes, as well as the fact that they are the fastest land mammal in the world, that help with hunting during the day to help reduce any glare from the sun.

Much like lions and leopards, their numbers are under attack from human conflict, poaching and habitat destruction, all while facing the threat of bigger predators on the playground. If we aren’t careful these already had to spot animals are going to become even harder.

Best places to see cheetah: Most people will say that the leopard is the most elusive of the big cats to find while you are on safari. However it is really the cheetah that can be even more difficult to spot, unless you are in the right places. If cheetah is what you are after try giving these areas a try.

  • East Africa – The Masai Mara and Serengeti are hands down the best areas to spot cheetah. Due to the flat savannah and grass lands found throughout you can usually spot them on a mound looking out. On a really good day you may even spot a few cheetahs or maybe a family. On a bad day though… Good luck. Wildlife viewing is always hit or miss.
  • Etosha National Park, Namibia – Another great national park to find our spotted friends. The park has a good, healthy population and the open, arid grasslands definitely helps. Makes Etosha a great starting point for a holiday filled with spotting unusual animals mixed with breath-taking scenery.

The medium cats

4. Serval (Leptailurus Serval)

A close up of a cat in a field of grass

Moving into some of our smaller, medium sized cats we have the serval, one of the lesser known and sometimes forgotten about, cat of Africa. While servals are often mistaken for cheetahs, due to their spots, they are considerably smaller, weighing in less than a border collie.

While the serval may have the same spots as a cheetah, there is no other cat quite like it. It is the only species in its genus. With model like long legs and a tail that appears disproportionately short, it looks like it has been thrown together with bodies parts from different animals.

These precision hunters can be found in around 35 African countries, however it is not known how many are actually out there in the wild. It is due to their nocturnal behaviour, small stature and camouflage that make them hard to spot and even harder to study.

Best place to see serval: We are starting to get into the “expert” animal spotting category with this one. Serval spotting requires a lot of patience and persistence as it isn’t every day, week or month that you come across them. Our first bit of advice, pick an area that offers sunset or evening game drives as this will be your best chance as they will be more active. Our second bit of advice, take your lucky rabbits foot with you as most the time it is right place, right time. Here are a few places to give you a better chance.

  • East Africa – No Surprise here but the Masai Mara and Serengeti are a great place to try and find Servals. You will need to get up early for this as the best time to spot them is at sunrise or sunset. The Ngorongoro crater near the Serengeti is another place to try.
  • Kwando and Linyanti Concession, Botswana – With big open plains, both these concessions offer a good chance of getting a glimpse of our little spotted friends. Dry season is the best time to go as the grass is not as long. If you luck out here continue your trip through Botswana to Savute for a second chance.

5. Caracal (Caracal Caracal)

As we move down the list, not only are the cats getting smaller, they are also getting tougher to spot in the wild. Introducing the masters of camouflage, with a look that can only be described as regal, we give you the Caracal.

It is the black tuffs of fur on the tips of their ears, which make them look quite fancy. It has not been determined why they have them, however when you look that fabulous, they don’t really need a reason.

We can currently spot caracals roaming through Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Back in ancient Indian time however, they were once trained to enter arenas with hundreds of pigeons. Here betting would take place to see how many birds these expert hunters could take down in one leap.

Best place to see caracal: Now this is a tough one. Caracals, much like the servals, roam all over Africa. It is the time of day and location that could help you here, however this one either requires luck or persistence. When asking around the office, only 3 of our 11 Africa specialist have spotted this elusive cat while on safari. Here are the most successful areas to spot them. Good luck!

  • Kafue, Zambia – This national park is a little off the beaten track but definitely worth it. With less foot traffic than the average national park, smaller lesser known species, like the caracal come out to play.
  • East Africa – Are you starting to see a pattern here? Masai Mara is a good place to start the look out. They have also been spotted quite a bit in the Serengeti in the Ndutu region. For one last chance try the Ngorongoro Crater.

Create your own personalised Safari to visit Africa's big cats

Our destination experts can assist by designing your ultimate safari tour of Africa’s top wildlife regions including the Masai Mara and Serengeti National Parks, the Greater Kruger National Park, Etosha and South Luangwa National Parks and more. Including transfers, your choice of lodge-style or tented camp accommodation, you can design your own safari tour to suit your interests. Click the button below for a selection of suggested itineraries you can customise with the help of our dedicated team.

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