From the rabbit-sized Black-footed cat of Southern Africa to the 320-kilogram Siberian tiger of the Russian Far East, the family Felidae represents some of the most fascinating and magnificent animals on Earth. There are so many ways of being a cat, expressed in all the different types of wild cats we see in the world today.
Felids occur in almost any habitat type from the high-altitude slopes of the Himalayas to the scorched sands of the Sahara Desert, from the banks of tropical rivers to the snowy forests of Alaska. All cats are supremely adapted to their environment. And each wild cat species is as beautiful as it is unique.
While most cats are ambush hunters, some family members developed alternative strategies. There is one cursory hunter – the cheetah; two piscivores – the fishing cat and the flat-headed cat; and three arboreal specialists – the clouded leopard, the marbled cat and the margay. All cats efficient predators, built to catch and kill their prey.
A few years ago, I set myself on an ambitious quest – to see all wild cat species in their natural habitat. That’s countless instances of sheer luck of being in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. Being stealthy and elusive hunters, cats are some of the most difficult animals to find in the wild and the quest of seeing them all is likely to take a lifetime. So far, I have seen 17 feline species.
Apart from luck, time and dedication, the most important thing for finding cats in the wild is knowing where to look. The single best source of information on the recent sightings of wild cats is the Mammal Watching website. It is filled with trip reports from mammal watchers around the world that share the details of sightings of various mammals and the logistics of the required trips.
Another two good reference sources are Luke Hunter’s book Wild Cats of the World and Mel and Fiona Sunquist’s Wild Cats of the World.
How many different types of wild cats are there?
While the total number of recognized wild cat species varies, the eight lineages that make up the Felidae family are widely accepted. As of November 2017, the Cat Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recognizes 41 wild cat species (including the domestic cat).
The family Felidae is made up of two subfamilies: Pantherinae that constitutes the seven big cats, and Felinae that represents the 33 small cats.
You may occasionally see references to wild cat breeds. This is simply confused terminology. Breeds refer to the types of domestic animals, like dog breeds or domestic cat breeds. Wild animals are classified into different species, not breeds.
Here is wild cats lower classification, including the list of all 40 wild cat species together with tips on where to find each species in the wild
Big Cat Species
The big cats are some of the most charismatic animals on earth and some of the most Endangered. So what are the 7 big cats? They are the large cats belonging to the Pantherinae subfamily of wild cats.
The tiger (Panthera tigris) is the largest wild cat in the world and the most endangered big cat. While its distribution range stretches from Siberia to Sumatra, most of the world’s remaining tigers occur in India. This is where you are most likely to spot a tiger in the wild. The best tiger watching reserves are Kanha Tiger Reserve and Bandhavgarh National Park.
I visited Kanha a few years ago and saw a total of 15 tigers in 7 days. The sightings included single individuals, a courting pair and a family: a tigress with three cubs. You can read the detailed report here.
There used to be two types of lions: the African lion and the endangered Asiatic lion that occurs only in the Gir Forest National Park in the Indian state of Gujarat. Although the recent genetic analysis revealed that Asiatic lions and Northern African lions belong to the same subspecies. The lions in Southern and Eastern Africa form the second subspecies.
The lion (Panthera leo) is the second biggest wild cat in the world and the only wild cat to live in social groups. The southern subspecies can be seen without much trouble in a number of National Parks in Africa. I saw lions in Kruger National Park and the surrounding sanctuaries. The most incredible sighting was a pride of the rare White lions of Timbavati. Read the detailed report here.
The leopard (Panthera pardus) has the widest distribution range of all big cats. It occurs throughout Africa and Eastern and Southern Asia. Unfortunately, like all other big cats, the leopard is under threat and listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List across its range.
Thankfully, some leopard populations are doing well. Sri Lanka’s Udawalawe National Park is one of the best places in the world to see the leopard in the wild.
I saw leopards in Kruger National Park, where they are not too difficult to find. Read the detailed report here.
The jaguar (Panthera onca) is the only big cat in the Americas. Its range extends from the Southwestern United States to Argentina. It is the most water-loving big cat, known for hunting caiman in the Brazilian Pantanal.
The north Pantanal in Brazil is the best place for jaguar watching. I spent four days exploring the banks of Cuiaba River upriver from Porto Jofre and saw more jaguars than I could have hoped for.
If you find leopards and jaguars to be incredibly similar in appearance, check out this post about how to tell the difference between a jaguar and a leopard.
The rarest and the most mysterious of all big cats, the snow leopard (Panthera uncia) occurs in the world’s most inhospitable environment — the high-altitude mountain ranges of Central Asia.
While the status of the snow leopard was changed from Endangered to Vulnerable by the IUCN last year, this decision is hotly disputed by conservation organizations on the basis of a lack of scientific data to support it. Scientists estimate that there are between 3,920 and 6,390 snow leopards left in the wild.
Low numbers, inhospitable habitat, and exceptional camouflage make the snow leopard one of the most difficult big cats to see in the wild. Most sightings occur in Hemis National Park in the eastern Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir states in India.
The smallest member of the Big cat family, the clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa) is considered to be an evolutionary link between the big cats and the small cats. It ranges from the Himalayan foothills to Thailand and listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List across its entire range.
The clouded leopard has the largest canine teeth and the longest tail, in relation to body size, of all wild cats.
Due to its secretive habits and preference for dense forest habitat, the clouded leopard is one of the most difficult cats to see in the wild. There are no reliable places to suggest, apart from noting that they are sometimes seen in Manas National Park in India.
Sunda Clouded Leopard
Sunda clouded leopard (Neofelis diardi) occurs on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. It used to be just as difficult to find in the wild as its mainland cousin. But in the past three years, Deramakot Forest Reserve in Borneo gained a reputation as the ‘go-to place’ for spotting these elusive cats.
Though even in Deramakot, finding a Clouded leopard is no easy feat. It took me two two-week long trips to Deramakot to catch a glimpse of a Sunda Clouded leopard in the wild.
Small Cat Species
Bay cat or Pardofelis Lineage
The second lineage to diverge from the common ancestor, the Bay cat lineage contains three species all occurring in the South East Asian region. This lineage represents some of the rarest Asian wild cats.
Borneo Bay Cat
The endangered Borneo Bay cat (Catopuma badia) is the holy grail of the wild cat world. It occurs only on the island of Borneo. These cats are so secretive that virtually nothing is known about them and they are almost never seen in the wild.
Asiatic Golden Cat
Another very rarely seen cat, the Asiatic Golden cat (Catopuma temminckii) has wide, but patchy distribution from India to Malaysia. It is present on the island of Sumatra but does not occur on any other Indonesian islands.
The Asiatic Golden cat is currently listed as ‘Near Threatened’ across its range and there are no reliable spots where it can be seen in the wild.
The Marbled cat (Pardofelis marmorata) ranges from the Himalayan foothills to Malaysia, and on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. It is an excellent climber and thought to spend most of its life in the trees.
I have seen Marbled cats on my trips to Deramakot Forest Reserve in Borneo. On the second trip, we were able to observe two individuals in the same tree. Read the detailed report here.
The third oldest lineage, Caracal lineage contains three medium-sized species that mostly occur in Africa.
Serval (Leptailurus serval) is an unusual-looking cat with very long legs, large ears and a short tail. All these adaptations are necessary for locating prey in the tall grass where it lives. It is widespread in Southern Africa, but rare in the north of the continent. This incredible feline is capable of leaping up to 3.6m to land precisely on its prey, even with its eyes closed.
While considered unusual, Serval occurs in high numbers in Ngorongoro Conservation Area in Tanzania. Surprisingly, a good place to see Servals is in the small town of Secunda in South Africa, home to the world’s largest coal liquefaction plant. The high density of Serval in such a seemingly inhospitable habitat is thought to be due to the abundance of prey, like the vlei rats and the absence of other big carnivores.
African Golden cat
One of the rarest species of wild cats, the African Golden cat (Caracal aurata) occurs in the rainforest of West and Central Africa. Its preference for the dense tropical forest habitat makes it particularly difficult to spot in the wild.
There have been some sightings in Libongo Forest Concession in Cameroon, where the cats seem to be reasonably common along the access road.
Caracal (Caracal caracal) is the only member of Caracal lineage with distribution extending outside of the African continent to the Middle East, Central Asia, and India.
Its name comes from their jet-black ears topped with tufts – caracal means ‘black ears’ in Turkish. Another acrobat, the caracal is capable of leaping 3 meters into the air and taking out several birds with one swipe.
While secretive and difficult to observe, caracals are often seen in South Africa’s parks and game reserves (Kgalagadi NP, West Coast NP, Mosaic Farms)
I was lucky to spot a caracal family in Ranthambhore National Park in India where they are not often seen.
Ocelot or Leopardus Lineage
This is the most diverse lineage of wild cat species. It contains eight small spotted cats, all with Latin American distribution. This lineage is different from all others in that its members have 36 chromosomes rather than 38!
The ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) occurs across South America, Central America, Mexico and Southern Texas. It is probably the most common, or rather the least uncommon of South American wild cats.
The highest density of ocelots in the world is found on Barro Colorado Island in Panama. The Transpantaneira highway in Brazil’s northern Pantanal is also a good place to look for the spotted hunter.
But the best place to see them is the San Francisco Farm in the southern Pantanal. I have seen three ocelots on a single night drive; all three sightings were very relaxed and at a very close range. Read the detailed report here.
Similar in appearance to the larger ocelot, the margay (Leopardus wiedii) is a much more skilful climber. Unlike the ocelot, the margay spends most of its life in the trees. It is one of only three wild cat species with the flexible ankle joint that allows the cat to climb down trees head-first (the other two are the clouded leopard and the marbled cat).
Margays are capable of hunting entirely in the trees. They have been observed mimicking the alarm calls of baby pied tamarins to ambush them.
Tree-dwelling cats are typically more difficult to spot than their ground-dwelling relatives. Wildsumaco Lodge in Ecuador is reportedly a good place to look for Margay.
Also known as a Pampas cat, Colocolo (Leopardus colocolo) ranges throughout most of Argentina and Uruguay into Bolivia, Paraguay, Brazil, and Ecuador.
I missed it at Fazenda San Francisco in the Southern Pantanal in Brazil, where they are seen about once a week.
The Oncilla is similar to the ocelot and the margay, but smaller. Recently the Oncilla has been split in two to separate species: Northern Oncilla and Southern Oncilla. The Northern oncilla (Leopardus tigrinus) occurs in Central America, Venezuela, Guyana and north-eastern Brazil.
A good place to look for it is Bellavista Lodge near Quito in Ecuador. They are also occasionally seen in the Brazilian Pantanal.
The Southern oncilla (Leopardus guttulus) occurs in central and southern Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay and northern Argentina.
Also known as Kodkod, the Guina (Leopardus guigna) is the smallest feline species in South America. It occurs primarily in the south and central Chile with parts of its range extending to the adjoining areas of Argentina. It is an agile climber, although it prefers to hunt on the ground, taking mainly small mammals, birds, lizards and insects.
A good place to look for guiña in the wild, including the unusual melanistic individuals, is Chiloe Island in Chile.
Similar in appearance to Guina but larger, the Geoffroy’s cat (Leopardus geoffroyi) has a wider distribution from Southern Bolivia to the Straits of Magellan. This is the only species of wild cats that have the habit of standing upright, using their tails for balance to scan their surroundings.
Its preference for dense habitat makes the Geoffroy’s cat difficult to spot. A good place to look for it is El Palmar National Park in Argentina. I visited El Palmar during the unusually rainy weather in early September, and it took me three nights to spot a single cat – the rare black morph of the usually spotted feline.
One of the world’s rarest cats, the endangered Andean cat (Leopardus jacobita) occurs only at high elevations in the Andes in Southern Argentina, Chile, Bolivia and Peru. It is one of the most rarely seen wild cats in the world.
Lauca National Park and Salar de Surire National Monument in Chile have been suggested as good areas to look for the Andean cat.
Lynx lineage contains four separate species that are all quite similar in appearance. All four species have short tails and tufted ears.
The most northern member of the lynx lineage, the Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis) ranges across Alaska, Canada and the Northern United States. It’s most distinguishing feature is the massive paws covered in thick fur. The large paws serve the purpose of snowshoes, allowing the Canada lynx to travel over snow-covered landscapes without sinking into the snow.
Lake Superior in Minnesota is reportedly a good place to spot the Canada lynx.
The Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus) is one of the most endangered wild cats in the world, with a population of fewer than 200 individuals remaining in the wild in 2002. A number of re-introductions and an increase in protected areas since then have seen the population increase to just over 400 cats.
The Iberian lynx occurs only in a handful of areas in southern Spain, with the best place for spotting it being Sierra de Andujar National Park.
The Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) is the largest member of the lynx genus and has the widest distribution. It ranges across Siberia, Asia and Eastern Europe.
While not threatened, Eurasian lynx is a tricky cat to spot in the wild. There are no specific, reliable places for seeing the Eurasian lynx in the wild, but occasionally they are seen on Snow leopard trips in Hemis National Park in India.
The Bobcat (Lynx rufus) is a North American cat that ranges from southern Canada to central Mexico. It is a common species and a good place to see bobcats is Point Reyes Natural Seashore near San Francisco.
This lineage contains the most unusual mix of feline species: one typical small cat and two over-sized small cats.
While the Puma (Puma concolor) is quite a large cat, it does not belong to the Big cat family, and therefore it is a small cat. Often referred to as cougar or mountain lion, puma ranges across South America, Mexico, the United States and parts of Southern Canada.
The best place to see a puma is Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. Although, I saw a puma with two sub-adult cubs in the aptly-named Puma Valley in Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica.
Famous for being the fastest animal on earth, the Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) occurs in Southern, North and East Africa, and a few localities in Iran, with the Iranian population listed as Critically Endangered.
The Cheetah is the fastest animal in the animal kingdom. They can go from 0 to 96km/h in just three seconds.
They are quite easy to see on a safari in South and East Africa. I saw a Cheetah with a young cub at a kill in Kruger National Park in South Africa. Read the detailed report here.
With its short legs and a long body, the jaguarundi (Herpailurus yagouaroundi) is one of the oddest-looking cats. It occurs in southern North America and South America.
While not considered a threatened species, the jaguarundi is difficult to spot in the wild. Most sightings of this species happen in South America, but they are generally accidental.
Leopard Cat or Prionailurus Lineage
This is another lineage containing many (six) small wild cats. The species in this lineage all have Asian distribution.
Also known as Manul, the Pallas’s cat (Otocolobus manul) has the longest and thickest fur of any cat species. It has a broad but fragmented distribution in the grasslands and rocky slopes of Central Asia.
The best place to see the Pallas’s cat is on Ruoergai grassland on the Tibetan Plateau in the northern tip of China’s Sichuan province. I saw at least three different individuals in five days on the grassland. Read the detailed report here.
The smallest wild cat in the world, the Rusty-spotted cat (Prionailurus rubiginosus) is native to the deciduous forests of India and Sri Lanka. It grows to all of 1.6kg in weight and 48 centimetres in length. But what it may lack in stature, it makes up for with daring attitude. It is equally at home in the trees and on the ground, where it catches its prey (mostly rodents and small birds) using rapid, darting movements.
Sri Lanka’s Wilpattu National Park is one of the best places to see the rusty-spotted cat in the wild.
The Flat-headed cat (Prionailurus planiceps) is an endangered small cat that occurs on the Thai-Malay Peninsula and the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. The main threat facing the Flat-headed cat is the destruction of riverine forest habitat for oil palm plantations, human settlement and agriculture.
The only reliable place to see it is the lower Kinabatangan River in Borneo, near the village of Sukau. I have seen a single individual after four nights of searching.
Unusual among cats, the Fishing cats (Prionailurus viverrinus) are not only unafraid of water, but they depend on it for food, much like the Flat-headed cat. Both species hunt fish and small aquatic vertebrates.
The Fishing cat has a wider distribution range across South and South East Asia. The best place to look for the Fishing cat is in Sri Lanka, around Sigiriya and on the outskirts of Yala National Park (the park itself is inaccessible after dark).
Mainland Leopard cat
The most widespread of all Asian small cats, the leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis) ranges across South, Southeast and East Asia. This species is reasonably tolerant of human disturbance and can often be found in rural areas and even among the oil palm plantations.
Sunda Leopard cat
In 2017, the Sunda leopard cat (Prionailurus javanensis), occurring on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra was separated from the mainland leopard cat on the basis of molecular analysis.
The Sunda leopard cat is common in Borneo, and I have seen it in both Damnum Valley and Deramakot Forest Reserve.
The last lineage to diverge from the common ancestor and therefore the youngest branch. The six small wild cats in this lineage are all closely related and distributed in Africa and Eurasia.
The jungle cat (Felis chaus) is a medium-sized cat occurring from the Middle East, to South and Southeast Asia and southern China. It is reasonably common across its range, and I saw the jungle cat in India, in Kanha Tiger Reserve. Read the detailed report here.
Africa’s smallest wild cat, the black-footed cat (Felis nigripes) is the second smallest wild cat in the world, after the Rusty-spotted cat. It is an excellent hunter, with an astonishing appetite – it can consume up to 3,000 rodents a year.
The Black-footed cat has a narrow distribution range in the southern part of Southern Africa. Marrick Farm Safari in South Africa is the best place to look for this species
The true desert dweller, the sand cat (Felis margarita) occurs in the deserts of North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. While not threatened, this species is not very easy to see in the wild.
The sand cat has an incredibly dense coat that protects it from the chill of the desert nights. The strands of thick black fur on the soles of its feet protects it against the opposite extreme – the burning-hot sand.
Most sightings of Sand cats come from Western Sahara and Jbil National Park in Southern Tunisia.
Chinese Mountain cat
One of the least known and the most rarely seen wild cats, the Chinese mountain cat (Felis bieti) was not even photographed in the wild until about a decade ago. It has a narrow distribution in Western China.
I saw the Chinese Mountain cat on Ruoergai grassland on the Tibetan Plateau. In four nights on the plateau, I saw the cats on three separate occasions, so it is certainly a good spot.
African and Asiatic wildcat
After some recent taxonomic changes, the wildcat species have been separated into the African and Asiatic wildcat (Felis lybica), and the European wildcat. I saw the African wild cat at Kapama Reserve, near Kruger National Park in South Africa. Read the detailed report here. Kafue National Park in Zambia has been suggested as a good spot for the wildcat.
The European wildcat (Felis silvestris) has a patchy distribution in the forests of Western, Southern, Central and Eastern Europe up to the Caucasus Mountains.
A good place to look for the European Wildcat is in Cordillera Cantabrica in northern Spain, in the area around Boca de Huergano.
An interview about my quest to see all species of wild cats with Unearth Women Magazine.
Have you seen any wild cats on your travels? I would love to read about your sightings in the comments