page 3 — FOUR BIG CATS
a web page by Don Roberson
Tiger in March 2001 at Ranthambhore, India © Don Roberson (above)

Tyger Tyger, burning bright, / In the forests of the night / What immortal hand or eye / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
If there is a single “Monster of God,” it is the Tiger Panthera tigris. More than 200 years ago William Blake wondered whether his God had created such a magnificent monster [see the full poem in sidebar to the right].

The word's largest cat and perhaps the most feared land predator, large male Tigers may reach a total body length of up to 3.3 m (11 ft.) and weigh up to 306 kg (675 lb). Although normally elusive and often actively avoiding interactions with people, some opine that Tigers are responsible for more human deaths from direct attack that any other wild mammal (Novak 1999). There have been various notable man-eaters within the Indian subcontinent. The Champawat Tiger, a tigress with broken canines and thus rendered unable to capture usual prey, was responsible for 430 deaths in northeast India. She was shot by Jim Corbett in 1907 (Corbett 1946).

Corbett (1946) wrote that "the frequency with which a man-eating tiger kills depends on (a) the supply of natural food in the area in which it is operating, (b) the nature of the disability which has caused it to become a man-eater, and (c) whether it is a male or a female with cubs." Most of the man-eaters shot by Corbett proved to have painful disabilities (broken teeth, embedded porcupine quills) that made acquiring natural food difficult. But coming upon a tigress and cub is also dangerous. Sadly, a friend of mine (David Hunt) was killed by such a tigress in Corbett NP while leading a birding tour; he left the group to go into the forest to locate a tiger he had heard about, and was killed and partially eaten (see Bill Oddie's 'foreword' to Hunt's 1985 autobiography).

Quammen's (2003) book includes a chapter on Tigers, but his focus is the near-mythical Siberian Tiger subspecies, P. t. altaica, more accurately termed the Amur Tiger [there are actually no tigers within the inland province called Siberia in Russia; rather, their range is in the Russian Far East, within the watershed of the Amur River, adjacent to northeastern China]. The people here are Udege, an indigenous tribe of Mongol stock. Quammen visits this remote locale, spends a lot of time in the bitter cold drinking vodka and listening to village gossip, but never sees a tiger. The Amur Tiger remains little known and very difficult to observe.


Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

William Blake (1794 )

In traditional terms, Tigers have been split into 8 subspecies (3 of them now extinct) but recent genetic studies have found little evidence to support this level of differentiation (Sunquist & Sunquist 2009). For most of us, the best chance to see a wild tiger is in India or Nepal, where the population involved is called the Bengal Tiger (the nominate subspecies P. t. tigris). It is the most common remaining Tiger population and yet it is endangered, with estimates of less than 2500 adults. For the most part the remnant populations are limited to a few Tiger reserves and National Parks. When Rita and I and two friends visited India in 2001, we structured our trip for the March dry season when chances to see Tiger would be at their highest. We were lucky to have good success, seeing Tigers on 3 of our 4 game drives in Ranthambhore: a total of four different individuals (one large male seen on two drives, one young male, and two females, one of which was in heat and calling). Note, though, that we missed it during one half-day drive in prime time and habitat — one should not rely solely on a one-day visit to a reserve if seeing a Tiger is priority! Late in our trip another male crossed the track in front of our jeep on the final stretch of the last day's drive in Kaziranga NP, Assam, India — a truly unexpected wild tiger. It dashed into a roadside bush (flushing up our only Chestnut-capped Babbler Timalia pileata of the trip!) and then stuck its head back out to look at us in what Dan Singer called the most memorable moment of the trip.

Tiger in March 2001 at Ranthambhore, India © Don Roberson (above)
Lion on 6 Aug 2002 in Tarangire NP, Tanzania © Don Roberson (below)

Until the late Pleistocene, Lion Panthera leo was the most widespread large land mammal on earth (after humans), ranging across much of the Old World. With the end of the ice ages, humans have spread further. Lions have declined. Today they exist only in sub-Saharan Africa, with a tiny population still in the Gir Forest of India. In Monster of God (2003), it was the Gir Forest lions and their interactions with local villagers, that Quammen explored.

While lions do not typically hunt people, some have sought human prey. In the well-publicized case involved the "Tsavo man-eaters," perhaps 50 or so workers building the Kenya-Uganda Railway were eaten by lions during the construction of a bridge over the Tsavo River in Kenya in 1898 (Patterson 2004; in the 1996 film The Ghost and the Darkness the attacks are attributed to two brother lions). The record for man-eating is not the Tsavo brothers, but a entire pride in what is now Tanzania during the early 1930s through the late 1940s. Three generations of lions are thought to have eaten 1,500 to 2,000 people (Rushby 1965). Even in recent years, it is estimated that 200 Tanzanians are killed each year by lions, crocodiles, elephants, hippos, and snakes, and that the numbers could be double that amount, with lions thought to kill at least 70 of those; Packer et al. (2005). Lions have attacked people even within large villages. A study of 1,000 people attacked by lions in southern Tanzania between 1988 and 2009 found that the weeks following the full moon (when moonlight declines) were correlated to increased night attacks on people; Packer et al. (2011).

On the other hand, researchers have lived with lions for years without being attacked [e.g., Mark & Delia Owens's work in Botswana (1985)], and there is context between lions, prey, and people that depend on location and circumstances. Hordes of tourists observe lions peacefully among the great National Parks of Africa.

Of course one is keenly aware just how misleading wildlife photography can be. What looks like a close encounter with a sleeping lion (left) is actually a gaggle of a dozen jeeps surrounding a bored and acclimatized beast (right; © D. Roberson).
Still, there is something unsettling just being in "lion country." During apartheid, many Mozambican refugees crossing the border into Kruger National Park, South Africa, were killed at night by lions; Frump (2006). Rita and I spent most of a week in Kruger NP in post-apartheid South Africa in 1996. One is required to stay within your car at all times when driving in the park — except for designated picnic areas and camps — for one's own safety. We enjoyed following some roads away from the main tourist drives, and occasionally one does need to stop to answer the call of nature. After doing so one morning, we got back in the vehicle and turned the very next corner to find these two lionesses standing in the middle of the road (true story; below). It is wonderful to be close to nature . . . but perhaps not too close.
Lions July 1996 in Kruger NP, South Africa © Don Roberson (above)
Leopard Aug 2002 in Tarangire NP, Tanzania © Don Roberson (in tree at dusk, below)

In Man-Eaters of Kumaon (1946), dealing with the situation in India, Jim Corbett wrote that "in the case of human beings killed by carnivora, the doubt is often expressed as to whether the animal responsible for the kill is a tiger or leopard. As a general rule — to which I have seen no exceptions — tigers are responsible for all kills that take place in daylight, and leopards are responsible for all kills that take place in the dark."

So it is the Leopard Panthera pardus that, in Asia at least, is the alpha predator of the dark. In Africa, lions and hyenas both hunt after dark, so there is more competition. Tiger and Lion are endangered, but Leopard is not. The Leopard's success as a species is due to "its opportunistic hunting behavior, its adaptability to habitats, its unequaled ability to climb trees when carrying a heavy carcass, and its notorious ability for stealth." It is the great generalist of the big cats, and it ranges from rainforests to deserts.

Leopard Panthera pardus is a distinct species. Once divided into as many as 24 subspecies, recent genetic evidence essentially reduces that named diversity to three major clades — African, Indian, and Central Asian — with isolated subspecies from Southeast Asia and China to Java (Sunquist & Sunquist 2009). Leopard should not be confused with Snow Leopard Panthera uncia or the two species of Clouded Leopards [Indochinese Clouded Leopard Neofelis nebulosa and Diardi's Clouded Leopard N. diardi], none of which are man-eaters.

Corbett (1946) wrote that "Those who have never seen a leopard under favorable conditions in his natural surroundings can have no conception of the grace of movement, and beauty of coloring, of this the most graceful and the most beautiful of all animals in our Indian jungles. Nor are his attractions limited to outward appearances for, pound for pound, his strength is second to none, and in courage he lacks nothing."

As to man-eating, Corbett thought that, in addition to disabilities that hinder capture of normal prey, leopards acquire a taste for human flesh when scavenging on corpses thrown into the jungle during an epidemic. He wrote: "A leopard, in an area in which his natural food is scarce, finding these bodies very soon acquires a taste for human flesh, and when the disease dies down and normal conditions are established, he very naturally, on finding his food supply cut off, takes to killing human beings." Of the two man-eating leopards of Kumaon, which between them killed 525 people, the " 'Panar Leopard' followed on the heels of a very severe outbreak of cholera, while the 'Rudraprayag Leopard' followed the mysterious disease which swept through India in 1918 and was named 'war fever' "[i.e., the influenza pandemic]. Corbett tracked and shot them both.

This young Leopard (right) is simply yawning, both does show a nice set of canines. Although Leopards do not typically dominate one's nightmares —as Lions or Tigers may do — they can be very dangerous. When visiting Kruger NP, South Africa, 1996, we were told that a guard — sleeping in a guardhouse at one of the designated camps — had been killed just that year by a Leopard leaping through an open window and attacking him. Big game hunter Kenneth Anderson described man-eating Leopards as bolder and far more threatening than tigers, but also more difficult to track: "Because of his smaller size he can conceal himself in places impossible to a tiger, his need for water is far less, and in veritable demoniac cunning and daring, coupled with the uncanny sense of self preservation and stealthy disappearance when danger threatens, he has no equal." Famed African naturalist Jean-Pierre Hallet fought and killed a Leopard that launched an unprovoked attack on a friend during a walk in the forest. Hallet used only his knife and the stump of his arm to subdue the cat [he had lost a hand while dynamiting fish to feed villagers during a famine; see Congo Kitabu (1965)].

Seeing a Leopard in the wild is quite difficult in Asia (I've not seen one there), but is more regular in the open savanna of some African parks, including Mara, Serengeti, and Tarangire in east Africa. The latter park — with a wider variety of habitats and not dominated by Lions (as are the Mara and Serengeti, for example) — provided us much success during a brief few days, in which we saw a Leopard or two almost every day in the dry season.

Leopard on 5 Aug 2002 in Tarangire NP, Tanzania © Don Roberson (both photos above)
Jaguar on 22 July 2010 along Rio Cuiabá, Brazil © Don Roberson (below)

Jaguar Panthera onca is the third-largest cat in the world (after Tiger and Lion) and is the alpha predator of the Neotropics. It has a huge range from Mexico (and rarely in the southwestern United States) to northern Argentina, and uses habitats from dense lowland rainforest to the open Pantanal wetlands. As a spotted cat it may recall a Leopard, but has more complex rosettes across its sides and back; is usually larger and of sturdier build; and has a broader head and neck. Some have pointed out that its behavior is closer to that of a Tiger. It is strongly associated with the presence of water and is, along with Tiger, a cat that enjoys swimming.

Jaguar is a compact and well-muscled cat; males are substantially larger than females. Larger males have been recorded to weigh as much as 160 kg (350 lb), roughly matching a Sumatran Tiger or a lioness. Jaguars in the Pantanal are the largest of the Jaguars, about 50% larger by weight than those in the Amazon and about 100% larger than those in northern Middle America. Recent genetic work indicates there are only two major populations — one from Mexico to northern South America, and the other from Peru and Brazil south through the Pantanal — rather than nine subspecies as previously thought (Sunquist & Sunquist 2009).

Jaguar is largely a solitary, opportunistic, stalk-and-ambush predator at the top of its food chain. It plays an important role in stabilizing ecosystems and regulating the populations of the animals it hunts. Jaguar is a stalk-and-ambush rather than a chase predator. The cat’s ambushing abilities are considered extraordinary by both indigenous people and field researchers.

I had long wanted to see a Jaguar in the wild. Rita & I undertook a private tour of the Pantanal in 1999, during which we requested a special emphasis on the search for Jaguar. With local guides we went driving back roads at night; we did evening canoe rides on small rivers (and heard one); and we found fresh scat and fresh footprints (below) on a sandy road early one morning. We had driven that road slowly just the night before. But we missed seeing a Jaguar.

Jaguar footprint in Aug 1999 in Brazilian Pantanal © D. Roberson

Things have changed dramatically since our 1999 visit to the Brazilian Pantanal. Focused Jaguar studies began in the early 21st century within the Cuiabá River watershed. It was learned that a reasonably successful way to see Jaguars was to search the riverbanks during the day from boats. With a couple of friends, Rita & I returned to the Pantanal in 2010. This time — after several days' search —we had close encounters with two different Jaguars — a male and a separate female — along river-edges. Nothing is quite so thrilling as to be sitting in a small boat just a few yards from the shoreline when a big male Jaguar suddenly appears from out of the forest (photo above).


Paul Donahue advises that researchers have positively identified 83 Jaguars in the Cuiabá River area since work began there in 2004. Our large male with a torn left ear (above) was new to the area. As our photos were among the first of this particular male, we were permitted to propose his research name. Since we were told he had been observed consorting with a female named "Alexandra,"we proposed the name "Nicolas," which was initially adopted. But another tourist also had a photo and proposed a different name ("Peter Schmidt") and since that tourist had booked his trip with the research company, ultimately his name was chosen. Donahue now advises that "Nicolas/Peter Schmidt" has been radio-collared by another research group — something these cats hate; they sometimes injure themselves trying to remove the collar — so an encounter with "Nicolas/Peter Schmidt" would no longer be quite as primeval as our jungle-edge view.

"Patricia" in July 2013 Brazilian Pantanal © Paul Donahue

The Jaguar shown just above is a female named "Patricia." Donahue says that she is "a gentle-looking two-year-old female who was the most accepting of boats of any of our Jaguars." Even so, Donahue reminds us that she is very much a wild and dangerous animal.


It is generally thought that Jaguars rarely attack humans, and (like Tigers and Leopards) many such attacks were by cats that were either old, wounded, or had damaged teeth. Further, some attacks are defensive. Researcher Paul Donahue was once charged by a Jaguar when he inadvertently approached too closely to the large cat eating its prey. A Jaguar can easily kill a person, and occasionally does.

Donahue advises that there have been three relatively recent attacks in their Pantanal research area: "The first was when a mother and nearly full-grown cub ripped into the tent of a sleeping fisherman and ate him. The father of the deceased subsequently went on a rampage, killing about 15 Jaguars in retaliation. In the second incident a Jaguar leapt into the boat of a local fisherman and attacked him. The fisherman escaped, but with a serious bite to his face. The third and most recent incident again involved fishermen. Three sport fishermen were fishing from a boat anchored fairly close to shore. Two were facing one direction while the third was facing the other way. The two felt a movement and looked around to see that a Jaguar had swum up to the boat, reached up and snagged their companion and was making off with him. They grabbed paddles and began beating the Jaguar over the head — fortunately saving their friend's life."

Jaguars have the most powerful bite of any of the cats, even more powerful than the larger Lions and Tigers. This allows it to pierce the shells of armored reptiles and to employ an unusual killing method — it may bite directly through the skull of prey between the ears to deliver a fatal bite to the brain. Alternatively, the powerful bite may go to the neck or brain-stem.

Paul Donahue’s photo series of an attack on a large Yacare Caiman (a few of which are shown below) are the most incredible shots that I have ever seen of a Jaguar — and they clearly illustrate the power of this incredible cat. Donahue says that "The cat in his photos is Mick Jaguar, one of two very large males we observed regularly this past season, [who was] about the meanest looking of our Jaguars."

Jaguar attack on Yacare Caiman Caiman yacare on 25 Aug 2013 in the Pantanal, Brazil © Paul Donahue (above)

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Photos: All photos © Don Roberson, except as otherwise attributed; all rights reserved.

Literature cited:

Anderson, K. 1954. Nine Man-Eaters and one Rogue. Allen & Unwin.

Corbett, J. 1946. Man-Eaters of Kumaon. Oxford Univ. Press, New York.

Frump, R.R. 2006. The Man-Eaters of Eden: Life and Death in Kruger National Park. The Lyons Press.

Hallet, J.-P. 1965. Congo Kitabu. Random House, New York.

Hunt, D. 1985. Confessions of a Scilly Birdman. Christopher Helm, Ltd., London.

Novak, R. M. 1999. Walker's Mammals of the World. 6th edition. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

Owens, M. & D. 1985. Cry of the Kalahari. Robert Hartnoll Ltd., London.

Packer, C., D. Ikanda, B. Kissui, and H. Kushnir. 2005. Conservation biology: lion attacks on humans in Tanzania. Nature 436: 927–28.

Packer, C., A. Swanson A., D. Ikanda, and H. Kushnir. 2011. "Fear of darkness, the full moon and the nocturnal ecology of African Lions," in Rands,S.A. (ed). PLoS ONE 6: e22285. [doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0022285].

Patterson, B.D. 2004. The Lions of Tsavo: Exploring the Legacy of Africa's Notorious Man-eaters. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Quammen, D. 2003. Monster of God: the Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind. Scribner, New York.

Rushby, G. 1965. No More the Tusker. London: W. H. Allen.

Sunquist, M.E., and F.C. Sunquist. 2009. "Felidae (Cats)," pp. 54–169 in Handbook of the Mammals of the World, Vol. 1 (D.E. Wilson & R.A. Mittermeier, eds). Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.

  page created 20 Oct-22 Nov 2013  
all text & photos © Don Roberson, except as otherwise indicated; all rights reserved