Searching for and tracking down the big cats

Kruger National Park | May 2020

A sighting of one or more of the big cats tends to be a highlight for many of the guests that come to Singita Kruger National Park. When I refer to the “big cats” I am referring to lions (Panthera leo), leopards (Panthera pardus) and cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus). We are fortunate to have a chance of seeing all three of these cats in the Singita Lebombo concession of Kruger National Park.

The idea of seeing these large cats is often stimulated by watching wildlife documentaries. Unfortunately, these documentaries often give people the impression that these large cats are abundant, easily found and are hunting most of the time (the reality is that these documentaries have taken years to film and that only the highlights are shown).

As apex predators at the top of the trophic pyramid the big cats are actually relatively scarce in relation to all the herbivores. It is not easy to find them. It takes quite a skill and lots of luck too! Fortunately, Singita Kruger National Park, has some incredibly skilled guides and trackers, who are intimate with the bush and who work together as a team to find these elusive cats for guests to see and photograph. One’s chances of seeing some, if not all three of the big cats, in a two to three-day safari here is reasonably high. Singita Lebombo is well known particularly for lion sightings. The guides and trackers use various methods to try and locate these predators. We search their favourite habitats with trained eyes, and we try and calculate where they are likely to be based on their specific behaviours; we listen for alarm calls from other animals; and we follow the tracks and signs that they have left behind. Each of these cats have favourite places that they like to be, which helps us to find them.

Cheetahs prefer open grasslands so they can hunt and chase down their prey. They often lie in the shade of a tree in the shorter grassland areas (like the Central Depression and Golf-course Clearing). When they are lying down, resting, they tend to lie flat on the ground with their heads raised at a right angle to their bodies. We therefore tend to look for the shape of their small heads sticking up above the grass. Cheetahs also like to climb up fallen trees in order to be able to search for their prey. In other areas, like in the Sabi Sands Game Reserve the cheetahs often make use of large termite heaps in order to look around.

Leopards can climb well and in the our concession they like to rest up on the cliffs and ridges, where they have a good view over the veld below them. Leopards can, on occasion, be found in trees (particularly when they have kills that they place up there to avoid hyenas from stealing their food). We do not have many large, easily climbable trees here and so we do not often find them lying up in trees. In other areas it is important to check out all the large marula trees, which have thick branches for leopards to lie on. When looking for a leopard in a tree one of the things that may give them away is the long tail that hangs down below the branch that they are lying on. Leopards have a bright white underside to their tails which can help us to find them. Sometimes our first indication that there may be a leopard in the long grass or thick vegetation is a flash of white as they flick their tails.

Since the big cats have pads on the bottom of their feet, which may be vulnerable to thorns, they tend to like to walk along the roads and along the well-used animal paths. Lions, in particular, are often found close to roads or well-trodden animal pathways. During the heat of the day lions tend to sleep in the shade of trees and this is a good place to look for them.

Finding and following the tracks (trailing the animal) is like finding the thread that is attached to the needle in the haystack. If you are able to follow it all the way it will eventually lead to what you are looking for. Unfortunately it is not quite as easy as just following the trail. The pads on the underside of the feet of cats do not always leave clear imprints on the ground. Cats often walk over leaves, through thickets, over rocks, over hard clay surfaces or through long grass which can cause the trail to be lost. They often change direction and the trail can be very erratic, without a dominant direction (particularly when they are hunting). The large cats don’t really want to be seen and hide well. It takes an extraordinary amount of skill in order to trail and find the cats on a regular basis.

Other animals also help us to locate predators by giving loud or distinctive sounds. Many antelope give an explosive bark when they see large cats and jackals often follow behind cheetahs howling loudly. We also pay attention to the behaviour of the other animals in the area. Many antelope have an “alert stance”. They will all stare at the predator and may even follow the predator for a while at a safe distance. Animals running away from a particular area (and particularly towards you) might indicate the presence of a predator hiding in the bushes or trying to hunt them. Vultures descending from the sky to a particular point or large numbers of vultures perched in dead trees could indicate the presence of a carcass and the predator that killed it. It is more likely that the predator is still in the vicinity if the vultures are perched as opposed to if the vultures are dropping to the ground, since lions will often chase them away and even try to kill them. Hyenas running in a particular direction may also give an indication that a predator has killed, or is busy killing some unfortunate animal.

We can also use our sense of smell when trying to find the big cats. The smell of death and decay might indicate a carcass that the predators have been feeding on. Additionally, carnivore droppings (when fresh) can be quite pungent! When cats mark their territories they often spray urine onto bushes. This urine has a smell very similar to popcorn (particularly the territorial spray of a male leopard). Any of these scents may give us an indication that there was or is a cat in the area.

Our trackers often track down these cats for us on foot so that the guests can see them. While out on drive, the tracker may see fresh footprints of one of the cats from his seat right at the front of the vehicle and stop the guide, who then gives the tracker a rifle and a hand-held radio and drops him off to continue following up on the tracks on foot. The guide then communicates with the tracker by way of radio and together they co-ordinate the search for the animal. If the tracker finds the animal he will then communicate this with the guide who will then come and pick the tracker up again and take the guests to go and view the animal that was being searched for.

When guests are exposed to a tracking / trailing experience, while on safari, it can be an incredibly rewarding experience and a highlight of their trip, particularly if all the hard work pays off and they get to locate and see the predator that they have been looking for. One gets a major sense of accomplishment and achievement when, after hours of searching, one is rewarded with a view of one or more of these beautiful cats.

Most guests do not physically get involved with the tracking down of cats on foot. However, it can be just as thrilling to find the fresh footprints of one of the predators and with the aid of the guide and tracker, follow the trail while in the vehicle and try to figure out where they could be. It is like playing a game of hide-and-seek. In order to do this one first has to find the footprints and identify which species left them. One of the characteristics of all cats is that they have three lobes at the rear end of the plantar pad / metacarpal pad (the main pad of the track, much like the palm of a hand). Dogs and dog-like animals tend to only have two lobes at the rear of the plantar pad. Cats usually have four toe pads / digital pads in a semicircle around the front of the plantar pad. Most cats have retractile claws and only extend their claws when they are needed (in the case of hunting prey or climbing trees). When they are walking, lions and leopards do not generally extend their claws and therefore claw marks are generally not visible on lion or leopard tracks. Cheetahs have semi-retractable claws / non-retractable claws and as adults they cannot withdraw their claws fully. Cheetahs use their claws for grip when running and their claws therefore get worn blunt through usage. Claw marks may on occasion be seen when viewing cheetah footprints. Claw marks are usually visible on dog / dog-like tracks.

Once we have established that we are indeed looking at the tracks of one of the big cats (as opposed to one of the dog-like creatures such as African wild dogs or spotted hyenas) we then need to establish which of the three large cat species left the prints.

Lion

Leopard

Cheetah

Lion prints are very large in comparison to those of cheetahs or leopards. Adult lion tracks usually measure between 100 and 140 mm in length (from the back of the plantar pad to the front of the toe pads). Lion tracks are also much wider than those of leopards or cheetahs. The sex of a lion can quite often be distinguished from the track. The plantar pad in lions tends to be quite square / angular (particularly in males), whereas the plantar pad in females tend to be more triangular. Male lions have much larger, more bulky tracks and the front part of the plantar pad (just behind the toes) is flatter or even concave as opposed to the front of the plantar pad of a female which is more triangular or rounded. Claw marks are not usually seen in lion tracks.

Leopard prints are smaller than lion prints (measuring between 70 – 100 mm in length). The digital pads are more rounded and daintier. Sexual dimorphism is also exhibited in the tracks of leopards. Male leopard tracks are usually approximately as long as they are wide. Female tracks, however, tend to be longer than wide. Another way to tell between the tracks of a male leopard and a female leopard is to look at the two outer lobes at the back of the plantar pad. In male leopard tracks these lobes tend to be more rounded and the edge of the plantar pad tends to be straighter as it goes towards the front of the pad. Female leopards have more angular outer lobes and the edge of the plantar pad (going towards the front) may be slightly concave. Claw marks are usually not visible in leopard tracks. There may, however, be confusion between the tracks of a male leopard and lion cubs (between the ages of 6 months – 1 year) as they are quite similar in size. Usually lion cub tracks will be found with adults, whereas male leopards tend to walk alone.

Cheetah tracks are similar in size to those of leopards, although they tend to be longer than wide. The track of a cheetah usually measures 80 – 100 mm in length. Claw marks may be visible. The lobes on the back of the plantar pad tend to be much more pointed and stick out further than in the other cats (particularly the outer two lobes). The plantar pad, itself tends also to be much more box-like than the triangular shape of that of a leopard. The plantar pad also tends to be smaller than that of a lion or leopard.

When cats walk at a normal pace their front and back footprints tend to register directly. This means that their back foot goes onto the exact same position that the front foot has just left i.e. the back print usually aligns directly on top of the print of the front foot. As the cat picks up pace the back footprint is usually placed further forward than the front foot. Generally speaking, the further forward the back print is from the front print the faster the cat was travelling. The prints of a cat running also tends to show dust that has been sprayed forward from the track and, often, the digital pads (toe pads) spread more widely apart.

Tracking and trailing big cats can be very interesting and exciting and can be the highlight of a guest’s stay. Luckily we do have some incredibly skilled trackers and guides who will do their best to find the cats for guests who come and visit us.