All 40 Species of Wild Cats and Where to See Them in the Wild

From the tiny Rusty-spotted cat of Sri Lanka to the massive Siberian tiger of the Russian Far East, there are 41 species of wild cats in the world, and each of them is as beautiful as it is unique.

Most of us know lions, tigers, jaguars and leopards, but what are all the other types of wild cats out there? If you consider yourself a cat person or simply curious about these charismatic animals, read on to meet the family.

A few years ago, I set myself on an ambitious quest to see all wild cat species in their natural habitat. This quest is likely to take a lifetime—some wild cat species are so elusive that they are hardly ever seen. So far, I have managed to track down 21 cat species. Below, I offer tips on the best tours and destinations for anyone wishing to follow in my footsteps and watch wild cats in their element.

One of the best sources of information on recent sightings of wild cats (and all other mammals) is the website, where keen mammal watchers from around the world share their trip reports. So, if you are interested in tracking down a particular felid, make sure to check it out.

Wild cats lower classification - Jaguar resting on the bank of Cuiaba river in Porto Jofre, Brazil
Jaguar in Brazilian Pantanal

In this post

How many species of wild cats are there?

While the total number of recognized species of wild cats 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 species in the family Felidae (including the domestic cat).

The family Felidae is made up of two subfamilies: Pantherinae, which is constituted by the 7 big cats, and Felinae, which represents the 33 small cats.

What are the 7 Big cats?

The 7 Big cats are the large-bodied felids that belong to the subfamily Pantherinae. They are: lion, tiger, jaguar, leopard, snow leopard, clouded leopard, and Sunda clouded leopard.

What are the most endangered wild cat species?

At the species level, the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species lists five endangered felids: tiger, Iberian lynx, Borneo bay cat, fishing cat and the flat-headed cat.

Here is the breakdown of wild cats’ lower classification, including the list of all 40 wild cat species (not counting the domestic cat).

Big Cat Species – Panthera Lineage

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 large cats belonging to the Pantherinae subfamily of wild cats. 

Tiger (Panthera tigris)

Siberian tiger
Siberian tiger

IUCN Status: Endangered

At 320 kg, the Siberian tiger is the biggest cat in the world. Sadly, it is also the most endangered big cat. As recently as the first half of the last century, tigers lived in Turkey and on the Indonesian islands of Bali and Java. These three subspecies are now extinct. The South China tiger has already crossed the point of no return, with an estimated 20 individuals left in the wild. The remaining five subspecies are in various stages of decline.

We almost lost the Siberian tiger as well, when in the 1940s, as few as 40 individuals were thought to survive in the vast forests of Siberia. Thankfully, in the last few decades, intensive conservation measures have been applied in the Russian Far East, and the king of the Siberian taiga was brought back from the brink of extinction.

Today, most of the remaining tigers belong to the Bengal subspecies that occur throughout the Indian subcontinent. Not surprisingly, India is the best place in the world to see tigers in the wild. Some of the best national parks in India for spotting tigers in the wild are Kanha and Bandhavgarh, which are in the state of Madhya Pradesh.

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. 

Lion (Panthera leo)

African lion
African lion

IUCN Status: Vulnerable

The second-largest cat in the world, the lion, once ranged across most of Africa and parts of Europe and Asia. Today the population is restricted to fragmented populations in Sub-Saharan Africa and one Critically Endangered population in India. We have already lost the Barbary lion that used to grace the wilds of Egypt, Morocco and Algeria.

Traditionally, there were two types of lions: the African lion and the Asiatic lion. However, a recent genetic analysis revealed that Asiatic lions belong to the same subspecies as the Northern lion, which also includes the Critically Endangered West African lion and the Central African lion. The Southern African and the East African lion form the second subspecies.

You can spot the Southern and East African lions on most classical African safaris. The only place to see the Asiatic lion is Gir National Park in the Indian state of Gujarat.

I saw lions in Kruger National Park and the surrounding sanctuaries. The most incredible sighting was the pride of the rare white lions of Timbavati. Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in South Africa and Etosha National Park in Namibia are also excellent places to watch the lions.

Leopard (Panthera pardus)

African leopard
African leopard

IUCN Status: Vulnerable

The leopard caught the experts by surprise. Of all types of big cats, it has the widest distribution range, occurring from sub-Saharan Africa, through Central Asia, and across the Indian subcontinent to Southeast Asia. And while some subspecies of the leopard are highly endangered, the species was considered reasonably secure. Until the experts realized that the leopards have lost 75 per cent of their historic range and the population continues to decline.

The two hotspots for the leopards are parts of Africa and Sri Lanka. In Africa, you are likely to spot leopards in Maasai Mara National Park (Kenia), Kruger National Park (South Africa), Serengeti (Tanzania) and most other National Parks in southern and eastern Africa.

If you are heading to Sri Lanka, try to avoid Yala National Park or at least not spend all your time there, it has become disappointingly overcrowded, which affects animal welfare. Instead, consider spending some time in Wilpattu National Park.

For the more adventurous types, there is an option to travel to the Russian Far East with the local Bohai tour in search of the Critically Endangered Amur leopard – the rarest type of big cat in the world. However, their numbers have been slowly rising from about 35 individuals in the 1980s to over 100 individuals in 2017.

Read more: How to tell the difference between a jaguar and a leopard.

Jaguar (Panthera onca)

Jaguar resting on the bank of Cuiaba river in Porto Jofre, Brazil
Jaguar in the Pantanal. Image by The Wildlife Diaries

IUCN Status: Near Threatened

The jaguar is the most water-loving big cat. It is an excellent swimmer and can often be found resting on tree branches overhanging the rivers. It also has the strongest bite in relation to body size among big cats. Its powerful jaws are capable of crushing the skull of an adult caiman – its favourite prey in the Pantanal.

The jaguars are unique among big cat species in that they represent a single continuous population across their 6-million sq. kilometre range, which spans 18 countries. There are no subspecies of jaguars. Taxonomically, it is the same cat that occurs over a very large range.

This poses unique challenges for the conservation of jaguars. Instead of protecting geographically isolated populations, the scientists now work to protect the connecting corridors of habitat that allow the jaguars to move between populations and maintain gene flow between these populations.

In late 2018, the United Nations Development Programme initiated a jaguar conservation program Jaguar 2030, that aims to protect the jaguars across their entire geographic range.

The two strongholds of the jaguar are the Amazon and the Pantanal in Brazil. But the Pantanal is a far better place for spotting the jaguar, especially around Porto Jofre – a small community on the bank of the Cuiaba River. When booking a Pantanal tour, make sure that you’ll be based in Porto Jofre if you want to see the jaguars.

Read more: Jaguar watching in the Pantanal

Snow leopard (Panthera uncia)

animals of bhutan - snow leopard
Snow leopard

IUCN Status: Vulnerable

The most enigmatic of the big cats, the snow leopard is often referred to as the Ghost of the Mountains. There is even a saying in Nepal that it is more difficult to see a snow leopard than to see God. This elusive cat lives in one of the most inhospitable environments on Earth – the high-altitude mountain ranges of Central Asia, and each individual ranges over huge territories.

Because the snow leopard has a wide distribution range, it was downgraded from Endangered to Vulnerable by the IUCN  in 2017. However, the Snow Leopard Trust disputed the decision on the basis of a lack of scientific data to support it. The experts estimate that there are between 3,920 and 6,390 snow leopards left in the wild.

Despite what the Nepalese say, snow leopards are regularly seen at Hemis National Park in India. However, this adventure is not for the faint-hearted. It involves camping in -20 degrees cold and scanning the mountain valleys for hours on end, looking for the elusive cat. The snow leopard’s coat of grey fur with black blotches allows it to merge so seamlessly with the environment that you could be staring right at it yet not see it.

Clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa)

Bhutan wildlife - clouded leopard
Clouded leopard

IUCN Status: Vulnerable

The smallest of the big cat species, the clouded leopard, is also the most acrobatic. It is one of the best climbers in the entire wild cat family. Its flexible ankle joints allow it to climb down trees head-first, hang off branches by its hind feet and tail and even climb on horizontal branches with its back to the ground.

Yet the climbing skills are not clouded leopard’s only talent. They are the only big cats that can purr and they have the longest canines, relative to body size, among big cats. Sometimes, they are referred to as the “modern-day sabre-tooth”.

Like all other big cats, the clouded leopard is threatened with extinction. The total population is thought to number fewer than 10,000 mature individuals, with a decreasing trend. However, due to their secretive nature, the clouded leopards have not been studied well and remain poorly understood. As in the case of the snow leopard, the population could be smaller than the current estimate.

Although the clouded leopard ranges from the Himalayan foothills all the way across Southeast Asia, it is incredibly difficult to spot in the wild. Occasionally they are spotted on wildlife safaris in India.

Sunda Clouded Leopard (Neofelis diardi)

Sunda Clouded leopard in Borneo
Sunda Clouded Leopard. Image @ Mike Gordon – Adventure Alternative Borneo / Wildlife of Asia

IUCN Status: Vulnerable

Until 2016, the clouded leopard was believed to be a single species. However, the use of genetic analysis techniques revealed that the clouded leopards from the islands of Borneo and Sumatra are in fact, a separate species that diverged from their mainland cousins about 1.5 million years ago.

Known as the Sunda clouded leopards, the island species are a little smaller and darker than the mainland clouded leopards. Up until recently, it was just as nearly impossible to see a Sunda clouded leopard as the mainland one.

But over the last few years, Deramakot Forest Reserve in the Malaysian state of Sabah in Borneo has been gaining a reputation as the go-to place for spotting these elusive felines. There are, of course, no guarantees, but if you’d like a shot at seeing a Sunda clouded leopard, Deramakot is your best bet

Small Cat Species

While not as well-known as their larger cousins, most wild cats are small cats. They occur on all continents except Antarctica and Australia, although Australia has a large population of feral cats, which are the descendants of the domestic cats that arrived in Australia with the European settlers.

Bay cat or Pardofelis Lineage

The second lineage to diverge from the common ancestor, the Bay cat lineage, contains three wild cat species, all occurring in the Southeast Asian region. This lineage represents some of the rarest Asian wild cats.

Borneo Bay Cat (Catopuma badia)

Bay cat. Image @ Jim Sanderson via Wikipedia Creative Commons

IUCN Status: Endangered

The endangered Borneo Bay cat is the holy grail of the wild cat world. It occurs only on the island of Borneo, and it is as mysterious to science as it was first described in 1874. These cats are so secretive that virtually nothing is known about them, and they are almost never seen in the wild.

It appears that, unlike clouded leopards, marbled cats, and leopard cats that also occur in Borneo, bay cats avoid travelling along the forest trails, which makes it very difficult to know where to set up camera traps. And of course, it makes it exceptionally difficult to spot the bay cat in the wild. You simply don’t know where to look.

Asiatic Golden Cat (Catopuma temminckii)

Juvenile Asiatic golden cat. Image @ Tambako The Jaguar – via Flikr Creative Commons

IUCN Status: Near Threatened

Another rarely seen cat, the Asiatic Golden cat, has a 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.

Asiatic golden cats prefer forested habitats and appear to be most active around dawn and dusk and during daylight hours. They are good enough climbers but spend most of their time on the ground, where they can bring down prey many times their own size, like young water buffalo calves.

Currently, there are no reliable spots where it can be seen in the wild, but most accidental sightings have occurred in Indonesia.

Marbled Cat (Pardofelis marmorata)

Wild cat species of the world - Marbled cat in Deramakot Forest Reserve
Marbled cat in Deramakot Forest Reserve (Image by The Wildlife Diaries)

IUCN Status: Near Threatened

The marbled cat is one of the most good-looking small cats, with its exceptionally long tail and beautifully patterned coat. This species ranges from the Himalayan foothills to Malaysia and the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. It is an excellent climber and is thought to spend most of its life in the trees.

I have seen Marbled cats on both trips to Deramakot Forest Reserve in Borneo. On the second trip, we were able to observe two individuals in the same tree, most probably an adult and a semi-adult kitten.

Caracal Lineage

The third oldest lineage, the Caracal lineage, contains three medium-sized species that mostly occur in Africa.

Serval (Leptailurus serval)

all types of wild cats: Serval

IUCN Status: Least Concern

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 the 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 (Caracal aurata)

African golden cat. Image @ By John Gerrard Keulemans via Wikipedia Creative Commons

IUCN Status: Vulnerable

One of the rarest species of wild cats, and the rarest wild cat in Africa, the African Golden cat 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) 

wild cat species - Caracal

IUCN Status: Least concern

The caracal is the only member of the Caracal lineage whose distribution extends outside of the African continent to the Middle East, Central Asia, and India. Its name comes from its jet-black ears topped with tufts—caracal means ‘black ears’ in Turkish. Another acrobat, the caracal, can leap 3 meters into the air and take 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 rarely 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!

Ocelot (Leopardus pardalis)

wild cat species of the world - Ocelot in the Southern Pantanal, Brazil
Female Ocelot in the Brazilian Pantanal, Fazenda San Francisco (Image by The Wildlife Diaries)

IUCN Status: Least Concern

The ocelot 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.

Barro Colorado Island in Panama has the highest ocelot population in the world. 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. 

Margay (Leopardus wiedii)

Marbay - small spotted cat of South America

IUCN Status: Near Threatened

Similar in appearance to the larger ocelot, the margay 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 a 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.

Colocolo (Leopardus colocolo)


IUCN Status: Near Threatened

The colocolo includes small wild cats that were previously recognized as three different species: colocolo (L. colocolo), the Pantanal cat (L. braccatus), and the Pampas cat (L. pajeros). The recent revision of the Felidae family taxonomy by the Cat Specialist Group recognized the colocolo or the Pampas cat a single species that ranges throughout most of Argentina and Uruguay into Bolivia, Paraguay, Brazil, and Ecuador.

I missed colocolo at Fazenda San Francisco in the Southern Pantanal in Brazil, where they are seen about once a week.

Northern Oncilla (Leopardus tigrinus)

wild cat species - Oncilla

IUCN Status: Vulnerable

The Oncilla is similar to the ocelot and the margay, but smaller. Recently the oncilla has been split into two separate species: Northern Oncilla and Southern Oncilla. The Northern oncilla occurs in Central America, Venezuela, Guyana and north-eastern Brazil.

Ecuador is one of the best places to look for an oncilla. Particularly, the Bellavista Lodge and Cabanas San Isidro Lodge. Oncillas are also occasionally seen in the Brazilian Pantanal.

Southern Oncilla (Leopardus guttulus)

IUCN Status: Vulnerable

The Southern oncilla occurs in central and southern Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay and northern Argentina.

Guina (Leopardus guigna)

Kodkod by Far South Expeditions
Guina on Chiloe island, Chile (Far South Expeditions)

IUCN Status: Vulnerable

Also known as Kodkod, the Guina is South America’s smallest wild cat species. It occurs primarily in 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.

Kodkod’s typical coat is brownish-yellow to grey-brown with dark spots, but the melanistic (black) morphs are also quite common.

A good place to look for guiña in the wild, including the unusual melanistic individuals, is Chiloe Island in Chile.

Geoffroy’s cat (Leopardus geoffroyi)

Black Geoffroy's cat in Argentina
Black Geoffroy’s cat in El Palmar National Park, Argentina (Image by The Wildlife Diaries)

IUCN Status: Least Concern

Similar in appearance to Guina but larger, Geoffroy’s cat 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 Geoffroy’s cat difficult to spot. Like guina, Geoffroy’s cat’s coat is usually tawny with black spots, although black morphs are also not uncommon.

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, a cute black morph.

Andean Cat (Leopardus jacobita)

Rarest wild cats - Andean mountain cat
Andean Mountain Cat (Juan Reppucci – Andean Cat Alliance)

IUCN Status: Endangered

One of the world’s rarest cats, the endangered Andean cat occurs only at high elevations in the Andes in Southern Argentina, Chile, Bolivia and Peru. Just like its bigger high-altitude dwelling relative, the snow leopard, the Andean mountain cat is one of the most rarely seen wild cats in the world. It prefers the steep, arid, sparsely vegetated and rocky terrain where it hunts mountain viscachas.

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

The Lynx lineage contains four separate species that are all quite similar in appearance. All four species have short tails and tufted ears.

Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis) 

Type of wild cat - Canada lynx
Canada lynx

IUCN Status: Least Concern

The most northern member of the lynx lineage, the Canada lynx ranges across Alaska, Canada, and the northern United States. Its most distinguishing feature is the massive paws covered in thick fur. The large paws serve as 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.

Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus)

Endangered wild cat species - Iberian lynx
Iberian lynx

IUCN Status: Endangered

The world came dangerously close to losing the Iberian lynx. By 2002, fewer than a hundred cats remained scattered throughout the isolated patches of the Mediterranean scrubland in Spain. By the time the scientists realized how perilous the lynx situation was, it was almost too late to save it. Fortunately, the Iberian lynx responded well to breeding in captivity. Since 2010, more than 170 lynxes have been reintroduced into the wild as part of the Save the Lynx project.

After two decades of protection and intensive conservation efforts, the lynx population in Spain and Portugal had grown to at least 1,365 individuals in 2022. The best place to spot the Iberian lynx is Sierra de Andujar Natural Park, just over 100km from Cordoba. Many wildlife-watching tour agencies offer specialized Iberian Lynx tours.

I did my PhD fieldwork in Sierra de Andujar in 2022 and had the opportunity to watch a female lynx raising a litter of three cubs. She hunted for them, nursed them, and watched over them when her older daughter visited for a day. I can’t think of another place in the world where you could freely witness the private lives of secretive felids like that.

Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx)

Eurasian lynx

IUCN Status: Least Concern

The Eurasian 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, the Eurasian lynx is a tricky cat to spot in the wild.

There are no specific, reliable places to see the Eurasian lynx in the wild, but occasionally, they are seen on Snow leopard trips in Hemis National Park in India.

Bobcat (Lynx rufus)

Fluffy wild cat - bobcat

IUCN Status: Least Concern

Similar in appearance to the Canada lynx, the Bobcat ranges from southern Canada to central Mexico. It is smaller than the Canada lynx and grows to about twice the size of a domestic cat. The cat’s name comes from its stubby (or “bobbed”) tail. Like all lynxes, the bobcat is a rabbit specialist; however, it would also take insects, chickens, other birds, rodents, and even deer.

Generally, the bobcat is a common species and a good place to see them is Point Reyes Natural Seashore near San Francisco.

Puma Lineage

The Puma lineage contains the most unusual mix of feline species: one typical small cat and two oversized small cats.

Puma (Puma concolor)

Wild cat species - Puma

IUCN Status: Least Concern

While the Puma 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.

Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)

fastest wild cats - heetahs
Young cheetahs

IUCN Status: Vulnerable

The cheetah is the fastest species of wild cat and the fastest animal on earth. It can go from 0 to 96km/h in just three seconds. Not only is it fast, but it is also quite nimble at high speed and can make sudden turns in pursuit of prey. Cheetah is also well adapted to life in the African heat – it only needs to drink once in four days.

Cheetah occurs in Southern, North and East Africa, and a few localities in Iran. The Iranian population, known as the Asiatic or Persian cheetah, is listed as Critically Endangered, with fewer than 50 individuals remaining scattered across the vast 140,000 km2 plateau.

African cheetah is quite easy to see on a safari. Good places to try are Serengeti National Park (Tanzania), Maasai Mara (Kenia), Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (South Africa) and Etosha National Park in Namibia. I saw a mother with a young cub at a kill in Kruger National Park in South Africa.

Jaguarundi (Herpailurus yagouaroundi)

odd type of wild cats - Jaguarundi
Jaguarundi grey and chestnut morphs

IUCN Status: Least Concern

With its short legs and long body, the jaguarundi is one of the oddest-looking cats. Its unspotted colouration is similar to the puma, its closest relative but different to all other South American cats. It occurs in southern North America and South America.

While not considered a threatened species, the jaguarundi is not easy to spot in the wild. Most sightings of this species happen in South America, but they are generally accidental. Most sightings happen in daylight.

Leopard Cat or Prionailurus Lineage

This is another lineage containing many (six) small wild cats. The species in this lineage all have Asian distribution.

Pallas’s cat (Otocolobus manul)

All types of wild cats - Pallas's cat or Manu
Pallas’s cat

IUCN Status: Near Threatened

Also known as Manul, the Pallas’s cat has the longest and thickest fur of any cat species. The reason it needs such a luxurious coat is its habitat preference for the windswept landscapes of rocky slopes in Central Asia. The rocky habitat provides the cat with shelter in caves, rock crevices or even marmot burrows. Pallas’s cat’s preferred prey are pikas and voles, though they occasionally take birds as well.

Pallas’s cats are not good runners. Instead, they rely on their ability to remain undetected. When disturbed it would often freeze and become virtually invisible against the grey rocky landscape.

One of the best places to see the Pallas’s cat is on Ruoergai grassland on the Tibetan Plateau at the northern tip of China’s Sichuan province. I saw at least three different individuals in five days on the grassland.

Rusty-spotted cat (Prionailurus rubiginosus)

Smalles wild cat in the world - Rusty-spotted cat
Rusty-spotted cat

IUCN Status: Near Threatened

The smallest wild cat in the world, the Rusty-spotted cat 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 a 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. We spotted a pretty relaxed individual in the early hours of the night from Wilpattu Sanctuary road – the main road leading to the national park entrance.

Flat-headed cat (Prionailurus planiceps)

Endangered cat species - Flat-headed cat
Flat-headed cat in Khao Kheow Zoo, Thailand (Image by The Wildlife Diaries)

IUCN Status: Endangered

The Flat-headed cat is an endangered small cat that occurs on the Thai-Malay Peninsula and the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. This unusual feline leads a semi-aquatic lifestyle, living on riverbanks and hunting aquatic vertebrates. It is an excellent swimmer and has fascinating adaptations to hunting in the water. Its claws do not fully retract to give it more grip on the slippery river banks. Its feet are semi-webbed, which is useful for wading in the water. And its long and sharp canine teeth are excellent aids for grabbing hold of slippery aquatic prey.

These unusual cats are threatened by the increasing destruction of riverine forest habitats as more land is converted for oil palm plantations, human settlements, 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.

Fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus)

Endangered wild cat - Fishing cat
Fishing cat

IUCN Status: Endangered

Unusual among cats, Fishing cats are not only unafraid of water but also 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 Southeast Asia. The best place to look for it is in Sri Lanka, around Sigiriya, and on the outskirts of Wilpattu National Park (the park itself is inaccessible after dark).

We saw the cats at both locations, but the sightings in Sigiriya were very distant, and the choosing cat we spotted near Wilpattu was curled up practically next to a farm road.

Mainland Leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis)

IUCN Status: Least Concern

The most widespread of all Asian small cats, the leopard cat 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 oil palm plantations.

Sunda Leopard cat (Prionailurus javanensis)

Wild cat species of the world - Sunda leopard cat in Deramakot Forest Reserve
Sunda leopard cat in Deramakot, Borneo (Image by The Wildlife Diaries)

In 2017, the Sunda leopard cat, occurring on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra was separated from the mainland leopard cat on the basis of genetic analysis. It is common in Borneo, and I have seen it in both Damnum Valley and Deramakot Forest Reserve.

Felis Lineage

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.

Jungle cat (Felis chaus)

jungle cat
Jungle cat

IUCN Status: Least Concern

The Jungle cat, also known as a swamp cat is a medium-sized cat occurring from the Middle East, to South and Southeast Asia and southern China. Jungle cats are typically diurnal hunting throughout the day.

I saw jungle cats during the day in Kanha Tiger Reserve in India and at night near Sigiriya in Sri Lanka. Neither sighting was particularly close or good for photography, unfortunately.

Black-footed cat (Felis nigripes)

Type of small wild cat - Black-footed cat
Black-footed cat

IUCN Status: Vulnerable

Africa’s smallest wild cat, the black-footed cat, 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. Nicknamed the anthill tiger, it lives in abandoned termite mounds and wanders the surrounding savannah in search of rodents.

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.

Sand cat (Felis margarita)

Wild cat species - Sand cat
Sand cat

IUCN Status: Least Concern

The true desert dweller, the sand cat 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 desert nights. The strands of thick black fur on the soles of its feet protect it against the opposite extreme – the burning-hot sand.

Most sightings of Sand cats come from Western Sahara and Jebil National Park in Southern Tunisia.

Chinese Mountain cat (Felis bieti)

Rare wild cat - Chinese Mountain Cat
Chinese Mountain Cat disappearing into the darkness on the Tibetan Plateau (The Wildlife Diaries)

IUCN Status: Vulnerable

One of the least known and the most rarely seen wild cats, the Chinese mountain cat 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 the 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 (Felis lybica)

African wildcat
African wildcat

After some recent taxonomic changes, the wildcat species have been separated into the African and Asiatic wildcat and the European wildcat. I saw the African wild cat at Kapama Reserve, near Kruger National Park in South Africa. Kafue National Park in Zambia has been suggested as a good spot for wildcats.

European wildcat (Felis silvestris)

European wildcat
European wildcat

IUCN Status: Least Concern

The European wildcat 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.

How many species of wild cats are threatened with extinction?

Wild cats face a number of anthropogenic threats such as habitat loss and fragmentation, loss of prey species and persecution by people as a result of real or perceived risks the cats pose to human livelihoods. As a result, 25 species of wild cats are currently threatened with extinction.

Five species are listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: tiger, Borneo bay cat, Andean cat, flat-headed cat and Iberian lynx.

Thirteen more wild cat species are listed as Vulnerable: lion, leopard, snow leopard, clouded leopard, Sunda clouded leopard, African golden cat, northern oncilla, southern oncilla, guina, cheetah, fishing cat, black-footed cat and Chinese mountain cat.

And seven species of wild cats are listed as Near Threatened: jaguar, Asiatic golden cat, marbled cat, margay, colocolo, Pallas’s cat and rusty-spotted cat.

What is the rarest wild cat?

It is difficult to be certain which is the rarest wild cat on Earth because we simply don’t know enough about the populations of some of the rarest felids. The Amur leopard is certainly one of the rarest cats with no more than 90 individuals surviving in the wild in the Russian Far East.

There may be even fewer Iranian cheetahs remaining in the wild, but the data on the Iranian cheetah is lacking due to the challenges of conducting fieldwork in a politically unstable region.

South China tiger may already be extinct as no wild individuals have been recorded since the late 1980s.

Have you seen any wild cats on your travels? I would love to read about your sightings in the comments

More on Wild Cats


41 thoughts on “All 40 Species of Wild Cats and Where to See Them in the Wild”

  1. I would say in Southern Africa, in my experience – a better place to see Cheetah and Lions than Kruger is Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (South Africa) or Etosha NP (Namibia)


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