The Big Three Cats - Lion, Leopard & Cheetah

For most visitors top Kenya's game sanctuaries the implicit savagery of natures eternal kill-or-be-killed ritual is found only in films and television or the pages of books and magazines. Yet, kill the hunters do-and frequently. The size of the kill, of course, varies according to the size of the species.

The Lion, mistakable in size and majesty, is the largest of Kenya's three big cats. It weighs up to 280 kilos. Its amber-colored eyes, like those of the leopard, differ from those of most cats. They are circular, not oval. Although basically lazy, the lion is extremely powerful - able, at one leap, to clear a barrier almost four meters high or a chasm as wide as 12 meters. Resourceful killers, lion hunt communally. The kill is swift. In a short burst, lion can run down their preferred prey-zebra, hartebeest, wildebeest, and other gazelle-at a top speed of around 64 kilometers an hour. The favorite method is a pounce on the victims back, dragging it to the ground and seizing it by the throat. Another method is suffocation by holding the victims muzzle in its mouth.

Lion normally kill more than they can eat, but will eat carrion left by other predators. In an ordinary year, on average, a lion or lioness accounts for 19 head of game at a weight of about 114 kilos for each kill. They wolf down as much as 25 kilos of flesh in one meal. Thereafter, they may go without eating for three to five days. Lioness kills more frequently than lion but the male is always the first to eat, the females second and the young last of all. In times of scarcity, cubs receive a cuff around the ear and threats to warn them off. Many die of starvation and vitamin deficiency, a natural method of population control. Lion prides often total as many as 30 animals, mostly females and young. Territorial creatures, they mark their range - up to 160 square kilometers - by urination. The familiar roar, rarely heard during daytime, carriers as far as eight kilometers and signals territorial ownership. This ability to roar-caused by a peculiar arrangement of the vocal mechanism - is shared by the leopard, tiger and jaguar. So powerful is this roar it stirs the dust two meters away.

Lion are phenomenal lovers. There is no mating season and lioness come into heat at least once a month. Though the female feigns aggression during the initial approaches, just as the lion feigns indifference afterwards, it is clearly responsive. The act, though brief-it rarely lasts longer than six seconds-is frequent, as often as 30 to 40 times a day. In one instance, mating lion and lioness were observed to couple 360 times in one week.

Lion are found almost everywhere in Kenya. There are several prides in Nairobi National Park, about eight kilometers from the city centre.Occasionally, they break out of the park bounds and head into the nearby Karen and Langata suburbs or the industrial area. One held watchmen at bay at the General Motors assembly plant in the early 1980s, and in the 1970s several valuable horses in Karen and Langata were killed by a renegade escapee.

For many people the Leopard is the most beautiful of Kenya's cats. Much smaller than the lion, it weighs between 60 to 80 kilos when fully grown. Its sandy fur is covered with exquisite dark rosettes.

Leopard move mainly at night. Only rarely are they seen during the day, resting up in the branches of a shady tree. Superb hunters, they prefer to kill without stalking -by leaping from the branches of a tree and seizing their preys neck or throat. Leopard kills last longer than those of the lion. What they cannot eat immediately, they haul up a tree, out of reach of scavengers. In this way they monopolize it-even if towards the end it become rancid. Leopard kills anything from small rodents to medium-to-large gazelle and antelope. They even eat fish and come readily by carrion.

They are usually solitary, but during mating, and when the female is pregnant, move about in pairs .There is an average of two to three cubs a litter. Leopards have the same vocal mechanism as the lion. Their roar, a grunting cough, sounds like a saw cutting rough wood.

Hunted ruthlessly for their skin, the leopard's elusive habits and solitude have helped to save them. Leopard live around (and sometimes in) urban settlements and are only noticed when pets and livestock begin to disappear. For all that, they are often beneficial, feeding on animals harmful to crops.

In the 1980s one was found in the yard of a house in Ngara, Nairobi, no more than five minutes walk from the city center. Leopard still live in City Park, a forest preserve in the parklands suburb of Nairobi, not far from Ngara.Leopard are scattered throughout Kenya and range from sea level up to around 4,000 meters high on the Aberdare range and Mount Kenya. One place where there is a reasonable chance of observing them, even during daytime, is in the Maasai Mara.

Although seen more frequently than the leopard, the Cheetah in fact is a more specialized animal. Most slender of the three big cats - weighing between 43 and 63 kilos-its oval eyes and gentle demean our make it the most appealing. Evolution has given cheetahs - deep chest, slender body, long thin legs - all the attributes they need for speed. Indeed, nothing in nature equals their swiftness on land. The fastest animal in the world, it has been clocked at a speed of more than 112 kilometers an hour. But the burst is brief, and always leaves the cheetah gasping for breath. Sometimes cheetah are so short of air their victims escape the capture hold-a slashing, claw-raking blow to the flank - and make off. At other times, a more dominant killer or scavenger-lion or hyena-will move in and steal the kill from the panting cheetah.

Cheetah live and hunt alone or in pairs; at most in groups of six. Cubs are usually born in litters of two to four, some-times more. The purr of the mother, like an over loud dynamo, trembles in the still air as she grooms her helpless, grey-colored young. The characteristic black spots develop some months later at about the time the young start to roam on their own, only to be recalled by the mothers chirruping cry.

Cheetahs occupy relatively open areas where they hunt by sight, catch by speed and kill with a throat hold. Although much rarer than the leopard, these superb specialists of the cat species are almost certain to be seen in the Nairobi, Amboseli, Tsavo, Samburu, Meru,and Mara sanctuaries.

Anthony A Juma is the Editor and Director Commercial & Flights Operations at Wings Over Africa Aviation Limited. This is an Air Charter Company that specializes On Scenic Safaris & Flights To Kenyan National Parks, Game Reserves & Private Sanctuaries. The website has guided thousands of travelers to achieve their dream holiday. For more information and guidance, visit the site at

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