Wild cat species - Bengal tiger
Bengal tiger, Khana Reserve, India

The quest to see all wild cat species in their natural habitat

From the rabbit-sized Black-footed cat of Southern Africa to the 320-kilogram Siberian tiger of the Russian Far East, the wild cat family represents some of the most fascinating and magnificent animals on Earth. Occurring in almost any habitat 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, wild cats are supremely adapted to their environments. And each wild cat species is as beautiful as it is unique. 

A few years ago, I set myself on an ambitious quest – to see all wild cat species in their natural habitat. Being stealthy and elusive hunters, cats are not easy to find and spotting them in the wild requires not only time and dedication but also a fair amount of luck.

Wild cat species

While the total number of recognized wild cat species varies, the eight lineages that make up the family Felidae are widely accepted. As of November 2017, the Cat Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recognizes the following 40 species of wild cats:

Panthera Lineage

The lineage containing all the Big cats, Panthera was the first lineage to diverge from the common ancestor and therefore it is the oldest branch. It contains seven species:

  • Tiger – seen in Kanha Tiger Reserve in India
  • Lion – seen in Kruger National Park in South Africa
  • Leopard – seen in Kruger National Park in South  Africa
  • Jaguar
  • Snow leopard
  • Clouded leopard
  • Sunda Clouded leopard – seen in Deramakot Forest Reserve in Borneo

Pardofelis Lineage

The second lineage to diverge, Pardofelis contains three species all occurring in the South East Asian region:

  • Bornean Bay cat
  • Asiatic Golden cat
  • Marbled Cat – seen in Deramakot Forest Reserve in Borneo

Caracal Lineage

The Caracal lineage contains three species:

  • Serval
  • African Golden cat
  • Caracal – seen in Ranthambhore National Park in India

Leopardus (or Ocelot) Lineage

The Leopardus lineage contains the largest number (eight) of small wild cats with Latin American distribution. This lineage is different from all others in that the species contained in it have 36 chromosomes rather than 38!

  • Ocelot
  • Margay
  • Colocolo (or Pampas cat)
  • Northern Oncilla
  • Southern Oncilla
  • Guina (or Kodkod)
  • Geoffroy’s cat
  • Andean cat

Lynx Lineage

Lynx lineage contains four separate species in one genus:

  • Canadian lynx
  • Iberian lynx
  • Eurasian lynx
  • Bobcats

Puma Lineage

This lineage contains one typical small cat and two over-sized small cats:

  • Puma – seen in Corcovado  National Park in Costa Rica
  • Cheetah – seen in Kruger National Park in South Africa
  • Jaguarundi

 Prionailurus (or Leopard Cat) Lineage

This lineage contains six small wild cats with Asian distribution

Felis Lineage

The last lineage to diverge and therefore the youngest branch. The six cats are all closely related and distributed in Africa and Eurasia

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