Big Cats in the Wild

Panthera taxonomy and phylogeny

Class: Mammalia (mammal) Order: Carnivora (predator) Family: Felidae (feline) Genus: Panthera

The Felidae family consists of big cats and can be divided into two subfamilies: the Pantherinae and the Felinae. The Pantherinae family includes the five big cat species of the genus Panthera: lion (Panthera leo), tiger (Panthera tigris), jaguar (Panthera onca), leopard (Panthera pardus) and snow leopard (Panthera uncia).

focuses on these big cat species that are in decline around the world. The main threats to big cat populations are habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict, (illegal) wildlife trade and hunting. Wildcat population numbers would benefit more from habitat protection than from the release of captive big cats into these areas.

A pride of lionesses


The lion (Panthera leo) is the only truly social wild big cat and is found in Africa and Asia. Packs usually consist of 1-20 related females, their offspring and 1-9 often related males. Females usually remain in a pack, although the entire pack is rarely complete. Pack cohesion depends on the availability of prey.

Fur color varies from tawny and gray to orange and dark brown – some lions have white fur. These lions are not albinos and do not represent a separate (sub)species, but instead display a recessive mutation that results in whiter skin and lighter eyes. White lions can be found in the wild in the Great Kruger in southern Africa, but they are mostly kept in captivity. Because the mutation is recessive and rare, most captive white lions are inbred, negatively impacting their health and welfare. White lions often squint, which is a sign of inbreeding.

Taxonomy and Distribution
According to the IUCN, there are two subspecies:

P.l. leo (African lion)The African subspecies is found in 25 African countries, but individuals/populations may exist in a further 7 African countries.P. l. persica (Asiatic lion) There is only a single population of Asiatic lion which is located in Gir National Park in India. There are plans to introduce this subspecies to the Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary to protect the subspecies from extinction due to disease and/or natural disasters.

Scientists have proposed another division into subspecies, which is still being researched. This division includes two subspecies, Panthera leo leo (Asia and West, Central and North Africa) and Panthera leo melanochaita (South and East Africa).

The total number of adult lions in the wild is estimated at 23,000 to 39,000 (IUCN), with a 43% decline worldwide between 1993 and 2014. Most lions are found in eastern and southern Africa. It is estimated that they are currently found in 8% of their historical range.

hunting behavior
Lions are casual hunters who will kill anything they come across. However, they prefer larger herbivores (60-550 kg). They hunt mainly at dusk or at night. Most hunts are conducted by females, although the success rate on larger prey (such as buffalo, giraffe, and elephant) is often higher when males join the hunt. Hunting success is usually low, ranging from 15% (Etosha NP, Namibia) to 38.5% (Kalahari). Lions also scavenge, with a success rate of up to 40% (Serengeti NP, Tanzania).

Maximum life expectancy: ♀ 19 years ♂ 16 years (rarely older than 12 years) Average size: body ♀ 158 – 192 cm ♂ 172 – 250 cm, tail 60 – 100 cm, shoulder height 100 – 128 cm, weight: ♀ 110 – 168 kg ♂ 150 – 272 kg Sexual maturity: ♀ 30 – 36 months, often do not give birth until the age of about 42 – 48 months, ♂ 26 – 28 months Gestation period: 98 – 115 days Litter size: 2 – 7 cubs Weaning: 6 – 8 weeks, but can be up to 8 weeks Months lastingIUCN Red List:Vulnerable (Global); Threatened (India); Critical (West Africa)Population: Declining

The lion (Panthera leo) is the only truly social wild big cat and is found in Africa and Asia.


The tiger (Panthera tigris) is a solitary big cat species and is believed to be the largest living big cat in the wild, although sizes vary from 140 kg to 261 kg. The largest tiger in captivity weighed 325 kg.

The base color of the coat varies from dark red to light yellow, and the pattern and darkness of the stripes are different. In general, tigers from northern regions are lighter in color and have fewer stripes. The coat is short, with the exception of the thick, long winter coat found in the far eastern regions of Russia. The patterns on the flanks and head are individual.
Some tigers have white fur. These tigers are not albino and do not represent a separate (sub)species, but instead display a recessive mutation that results in a white coat. White tigers are rarely seen in the wild and are mostly found in captivity. Because the mutation is rare and recessive, most white tigers in captivity are inbred, negatively affecting their health and welfare. White tigers often squint, which is a sign of inbreeding.

Taxonomy and Distribution
According to the IUCN, there are nine subspecies, three or four of which are already extinct:

p.t. altaica (Amur tiger)found in the Russian Far East and northeastern China; critically endangeredP. t. Tigris
(Bengal tiger) found in the Indian subcontinent; critically endangeredP. t. amoyensis (South China tiger) this species has not been directly observed in the wild since the 1970s and is therefore possibly extinct; Critically EndangeredP. t. corbetti (Northern Indochinese Tiger) found in Indochina north of the Malay Peninsula; critically endangeredP. t. jacksoni (Malaysian tiger)found in Peninsular Malaysia; critically endangeredP. t. sumatrae (Sumatran tiger) found in Sumatra; critically endangeredP. t. balica (Bali Tiger) used to be in Bali; ExtinctP. t. sondaica (Java Tiger) used to be in Java; ExtinctP. t. virgate (Caspian tiger)formerly found in the dry river valleys of the Takla Makan, on the western slopes of the Tianshan Mountains, in the river valleys of Amudarya and Syrdarya, on the shores of the Caspian Sea, in the Alborz Mountains, in eastern Turkey, in the river valleys of Tigris and Euphrates; Extinct

However, there are differing views on the interpretation of the existing data used to classify tigers into the various subspecies. As such, this taxonomy is currently under review by the IUCN SSC Cat Specialist Group.

The tiger is an endangered big cat species with an estimated population of 2,608 – 3,905 adults with the best estimate at 3,140 (IUCN). Tigers used to be found in many Asian countries but have disappeared from many of those countries in the last 100 years. Tigers are now found in less than 7% of their historical range. In addition to habitat loss, they are also threatened by poaching for traditional medicine and commercial trade.

hunting behavior
Tigers are versatile hunters, capable of taking prey weighing up to 1,000 kg. They are opportunistic hunters that will hunt almost anything that comes their way, and hunt mainly at night and dusk. Tigers are considered the large predator that kills the most people. This is likely due to the fact that the human population in Asia is very dense and many people make intensive use of tiger habitat. Tigers also prey and steal prey from other predators.

Maximum life expectancy: ♀ 16 years, ♂ 12 years Average size: body ♀ 146 – 177 cm ♂ 189 – 300 cm, tail 72 – 109 cm, shoulder height 80 – 110 cm, weight ♀ 75 – 177 kg ♂ 100 – 261 kg sexual maturity: ♀ 2 .5 – 3 years; often first give birth at about 3 years of age and males ♂ first breed at about 3.4 years Gestation period:95 – 107 days Litter size:2 – 5 Weaning3 – 5 monthsIUCN Red List:Vulnerable (global)Population:Declining

The tiger (Panthera tigris) is a solitary big cat species and is believed to be the largest living big cat in the wild.


The leopard (Panthera pardus) is a very tolerant species that can survive in many different habitats. They are known to be able to survive in high human densities. They can also cope with extremely cold temperatures (-30 °C in Russian boreal forests) and extremely hot temperatures (70 °C in deserts). Leopards are solitary and extremely territorial.
The coat color varies from bright golden yellow to pale yellow to rust-red yellow with a white belly. The coat is short with black patches on the head, neck, shoulders, legs and back. On the sides and back, the black spots form broken circles or rosettes. There are also melanistic forms known as black leopards or black panthers.

Taxonomy and Distribution
According to the IUCN, there are nine subspecies:

p.p. pardus (African leopard)AfricaP. p. nimr (Arabian leopard)Arab EmiratesP. p. saxicolor (Persian leopard)Southwest AsiaP. p. melas (Java Leopard) JavaP. p. kotiya (Sri Lankan leopard)Sri LankaP. p. fusca (Indian leopard)IndiaP. p. delacouri (Indochinese leopard)Southeastern Asia and southern ChinaP. p. japonensis (North China leopard)North ChinaP. p. orientalis (Amur Leopard)Russian Far East, Korean Peninsula and Northeastern China

The number of leopards worldwide is not known, but populations are believed to be declining. The range has shrunk significantly over the past three generations (22.3 years) due to habitat destruction, reduction of prey from the bushmeat trade, illegal harvesting, and human-leopard conflict.

Population estimates are available for some subspecies:

  • Amur Leopard (P. p. orientalis) – Endangered: < 60
  • Arabian Leopard (P. p. nimr) – Endangered: 45 – 200
  • Java Leopard (P. p. melas) – Endangered: 350 – 525, with fewer than 250 mature adults
  • Sri Lankan Leopard (P. p. kotiya) – Endangered: 700 – 950
  • Persian Leopard (P. p. saxicolor) – Endangered: 800 – 1,000

The biggest threats to leopards are loss of habitat and prey, and human-leopard conflict. They are also hunted (legally and illegally) for their body parts, including traditional medicines.

hunting behavior
Leopards are known to hunt a variety of prey – from small arthropods to large mammals. However, you prefer…