Can you imagine an Africa without lions? Within the past century wild lion populations have declined from as many as 200,000 down to only 20,000. Their numbers have dropped by 40 percent just in the past 20 years (and 90 percent within the past 75 years). I am 28 years old – within my lifetime, wild lions have almost halved their population numbers, what do you think is going to happen in the next 20 years? They are already extinct in 26 African countries.

The leopard is likely the most persecuted large cat in the world. Slaughtered for their stunning spotted coats and other body parts which are used for ceremonial regalia, killed in conflicts with people and through poorly managed trophy hunting and suffer from the loss of prey due to bushmeat poaching. They are extinct from six countries, and likely six more. Leopards have vanished from 49 percent of their historic range in Africa, and 84 percent of their historic range in Eurasia. They have the largest range of any wild cat and yet, are still in trouble and facing a grave future. There are fewer than 70 wild individuals of the subspecies, the Amur leopard left in the world. 70.

The cheetah may be known as the fastest land mammal, but they are quickly disappearing as well. They have vanished from approximately 91% of their historic range. There are estimated to be less than 7,100 cheetahs left in the wild today. The Asian cheetah is nearly extinct with fewer than 50 individuals left in central Iran.

The tiger. My personal favourite animal. I have been obsessed with them for as long as I can remember (seriously, just ask anyone in my family). They are the largest of the big cats. They are also the closest to extinction. There are only 3,900 tigers remaining in the wild. Of the subspecies of tigers, three (Caspian, Javan, and Bali) are extinct and one more (South-China) is likely to be extinct in the wild. They have disappeared from 96% of their historic range.

And I am sorry to say that I have never had the privilege to see a tiger in the wild, so until that day I can only share a photo of a captive Amur tiger that stole my heart while working as a zookeeper for the Pittsburgh Zoo. Photo taken by Amanda Westerlund.

The jaguar, the puma, the snow leopard… all big cats (and we are using the expanded definition of “big cat” here) are under threat.

I will be completely honest with you, I am nearly in tears just writing this. These numbers are devastating – heartbreaking.

But this is not the end. Not yet.
We can still make a difference. Today, the 3rd of March, is World Wildlife Day and the theme is big cats.

I have dedicated my life to wild cats and their conservation. I am not asking you to drop everything and move to the bush, but I am asking you to help. Educate yourself. Read about these remarkable creatures and the plights that they face. Learn about the illegal fur and parts trades as well as the illegal pet trades. Read stories of conflicts between farmers, locals and cats. Find out about real conservation efforts and distinguishing them from the fake conservation efforts of companies that profit from petting, feeding and “walking with” big cats. Do not support, ‘Like’ or share photos of people petting, bottle feeding or treating wild cats as pets. Do not spend holidays or money supporting organisations that promote tourist physically interacting with big cats. Most of those cats end up in the canned hunting trade or even worse. Watch the documentary Blood Lions. And if you have the means, donate. That is honestly one of the best things you can do to help. On the ground conservation is not cheap. We need support to keep fighting this battle. If you cannot donate money, then donate your time. One great way (no bias here, of course) is you can help in research by becoming a citizen scientist and taking action, even from the comforts of your home. Log on to Camera CATalogue and help us to classify animals from camera trap surveys throughout the world and including the surveys that I run here in South Africa.

Check out my company, Panthera’s website to learn more about big cats and ways you can help – http://www.panthera.org or join me and get involved on CameraCATalogue at www.cameracatalogue.org

So please do something for big cats today – and use Panthera’s Facebook Frame for the day, use the hashtag #istandforbigcats to show the world your support.

Help us reverse these numbers. Help us change fate. I stand with big cats, do you?

Another year old, another year wiser…. well, another year old for sure anyways. Today marks the day that I have been on this planet for 28 years. Man, I am getting old. 😛 My day started out early and I woke up before the sun to get out an about with my camera. It’s a cold and rainy day, so unfortunately there wasn’t too much out, but I did manage to see three cheetahs!! They were about 120m off in some tall grass so it wasn’t the best sighting, but it still counts! I really cannot complain one bit because I have had an incredible week of sightings so far! Besides the handsome big tom leopard the other day, I  have been able to check a big one off my photography goal list …………

……

LEOPARD CUBS!!! It was a super fast sighting, but I managed to get my camera out in time to catch a few in focus shots and many blurry shots of grass and spots. There was a game viewer that I was following on my way to some of the PantheraCams when they slammed on the breaks as a female leopard jumped up from her spot laying next to the road and dashed off into some thick trees and up a koppie. I tried to grab photo, but she was just too quick! I was still pretty excited to have seen a leopard and was happy with that when I noticed that the guests in the viewer were all still looking, pointing and snapping photos so I looked a bit harder. And there, bounding in the tall grass were two cubs! They also quickly dashed up the koppie after their mum, but I managed to catch them popping in and out of the rocks for a bit where I was able to snap this picture:

So sweet! They are about six months of age and I believe one is a male, but I did not get a good enough look at the other one. My first leopard cub sighting! Now of course I am going to be extra vigilant every time I pass this koppie, just in case they are hanging out again playing in the rocks.

AND just the other day I had an amazing cheetah sighting. This reserve is plagued with super cheeky animals and I have been struggling keeping my cameras upright as apparently, they make wonderful butt rubbing posts for rhinos and once they are on the ground the hyaenas snatch them right up! One of the reserve ecologists went out on a camera recovery mission with me to walk into the bush around the sites where I lost some cameras in hopes of finding them again (we only managed to find a pole at one site without a camera, the back only of a camera at one site and a completely smashed camera that looks like an ele stepped on it at another). Oh, the life of a PantheraCam!

While we were driving to the next lost camera site I made probably the most unique sound that I could never recreate and slammed on the breaks. Right next to the resting the in the shade of a tree were two cheetahs and just off in the distance was a third! They got up and walked down the road a bit (nice for us it was a management track so no game viewers or private cars could follow). We followed them and ended up hanging out with the trio for over an hour. It was a young group (1 year 8 months old) comprising of a brother and two sisters.

Very soon they will all split apart and go their separate ways. Female cheetahs live solitary lives and only come together with a male for breeding and then will raise her cubs until they are about 16-18 months old. Male brothers will sometimes stick together forming coalitions of usually two to three related males. These coalitions help allow them to patrol much larger territories that could encompass multiple female’s territories and also allows them to hunt bigger game by working as a unit. The males share everything, including mates. Females can have litters with each cub from a different sire (this is called heteropaternal superfecundation and is quite common in felids).

The sibling trio mainly did what cats do best in the heat of the day and rested under various shady spots. When a herd of zebra walked past snorting loudly to let the predators know that they have been spotted, the male slunk down in the shadows of a nearby tree and watched the zebra with interest. He made a half-hearted attempt at chasing one of the foals, but only succeeded in sending the herd galloping off into the distance. Defeated, he threw himself down into the shade and that is how we left him and his sisters.

I have also had some Jurassic Park déjà vu moments from the “must go faster, must go faster” scene, but instead of being chased by miss T. rex, I was charged by a young bull elephant! Typically when a young bull comes your way you want to hold your ground or else you will train them that chasing cars is fun. Well, this boy was having NONE of that idea and started coming at me with a trumpet and in turbo gear. I had to reverse UP a steep hill on a road that was barely a road with tons of mini boulders and canyons in it. He chased me for nearly three minutes but eventually I got enough distance to turn the bakkie around and drive out of there. I think the cameras down that road will have to wait until another day to get checked.

And then the misty morning made for some wonderful Jurassic Park view moments complete with longnecks and triceratops.

I am not yet sure what the rest of my birthday day is going to involve. I do miss my friends and family a lot, especially on days like today, but I can tell you that I definitely do not mind spending my birthday here in the bush. (I just wish you all could come spend it here with me!)

I study two of the most elusive spotted cats – the leopard and the serval. I am fascinated with both. The solid-built silhouette of the leopard that stalks through the shadows, with every step muscles ripple, exuding pure power and the elegant, light framed several – the long-legged spotted beauty that’s athleticism would make even an Olympic athlete green with envy. Both of these cats are just downright incredible. Now the problem with studying elusive cats is that they are, well, elusive. I have never seen a serval before in the wild and have only witnessed leopards on less than a handful of lucky occasions. I am out in the bush nearly every day in both of these species’ territories. I have the camera trap photos to prove it. I always get … thinking of a nice word here… frustrated when reserve guests stop me to complain that they have been here for nearly two whole days and haven’t seen a single leopard yet. *insert big eye roll here*

Well this morning it happened.

I left camp about 0530, my usual time for camera check days. It gets hot standing in the sun all day, so if you can start before the sun and the heat, then that’s the way to go. The sky was just beginning to lighten and on the very edge of the horizon, you could just make out the orange hues that promise the heat of a new day. Most of the reserve goers haven’t even left the comfort of their beds, let alone had their first sips of coffee yet so there are no other vehicles out on the roads, only at the lodges are the game viewers beginning to stir, but not here, not yet. Birds chirp from every direction. The chill morning air causes gooseflesh on my arms, not just because of the cool temperatures, but because of what those cool, quiet temps mean. This is the hour of the hunter. Throughout the land, lions are scoping out unsuspecting zebra, a serval pounces high in the air to land with pinpoint accuracy on a small mouse hiding in the thicket. I am always a little on edge when walking around to check cameras in this crepuscular hour. This is my favourite time of the day.

While riding in my bakkie, with all the windows down, the cool morning air blowing on my skin, a cat steps out of the bush and onto the road just in front of me. My mind immediately registers that it must be a sleek lioness since lion sightings are so common here, but quickly I realise that this spotted majesty in front of me swaggering across the road with his tail slightly curled behind him is no lion. I nearly stall the bakkie as I frantically reach into the passenger seat next to me trying to grab my camera and uncap the lens before he silently disappears back into the shadows forever. Lucky for me this isn’t just a flash of a sighting – this impressive male is in no hurry. And impressive he is. The male is probably around 5 years of age and is in absolute prime condition. His coat and ears not yet scarred from old age and many years living in the bush and defending his territory.

He crosses the road to the other side and walks alongside me weaving in and out of the tall grasses. At one point he pauses and looks directly at me. When such a skilled killer looks directly at you, he looks straight through you and penetrates into your soul.

But I, in my steel wheeled chariot, am of no interest to this beast and he casually continues on his way. He takes advantage of the quiet road being the easiest way of travel and strolls down the road behind me into the rising sun which is now painting the sky hues of orange.

And just like that the moment is over, it has passed.

Lions? I can’t tell you how many times I have seen them, what they were doing or where it was. But I remember each leopard sighting in detail.