Take a walk on the wild side this summer
Many of us share our homes with a furry feline, but for what can often be a once-in-a-lifetime encounter with their elusive cousins in the wild, you’ll have to do your homework, be patient and also have a little bit of luck…
Earn your stripes on a tiger safari
A 30 per cent increase in India’s tiger population as of the last count in 2014 suggests there’s never been a better time to see these iconic cats in their natural habitat. What’s more, this positive trend is expected to continue in the latest census taking place this year, with hopes that this long- endangered species will surpass 3,000.
Despite rising numbers (India is home to more than half the global population), Bengal tigers don’t make it easy for us to find them. To give yourself the best shot, visit two or three different reserves during your trip. The state of Madhya Pradesh in the heart of India offers some of the highest concentrations of tigers, with top spots in close proximity, including Bandhavgarh National Park, Kanha Tiger Reserve and Pench National Park (the latter was the inspiration for Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book).
The general consensus regarding the best season to visit is during the summer months (April to June), when vegetation begins to die back and tigers are more likely to stick close to water. It’s also at this time that tigresses give birth, so you may see mothers with their cubs. India is also home to its very own species of lion. If you have time, consider a trip to Gujarat in the far west to visit the Asiatic lions of Gir National Park, the country’s lesser-known cat.
Visit an island overtaken by cats
Okay, so these felines are technically more feral than wild, but nevertheless, if you’re a ‘cat person’ then you need to put Aoshima Island on your bucket list.
On this mile-long island off southern Japan the cats have come to outnumber the human residents by as much as six to one! This bizarre turn of events came about due to a sharp decline in the fishing industry during the 20th century. Formerly employed as pest control, many of the working cats were left to their own devices as people moved away, and ever since the tabby population has soared.
Aoshima’s four-legged inhabitants are particularly active around the main village’s harbour, where they hang about ever hopeful for a fishy freebie from the remaining locals and an ever-increasing tide of tourists. The harbour is where the ferry arrives, a 35-minute trip from Port Nagahama costing 680 yen each way.
Summon ghosts in the Mongolian mountains
There’s a good reason that snow leopards are known as the ‘ghosts of the mountain’ – they’re extremely evasive creatures and their camouflage enables them to all but vanish into their natural surroundings. Mongolia is one of the best places to see these ethereal felines; for one thing, it hosts the second largest population in the world after China, and two, they venture to far lower, more easily accessible elevations here than their high-altitude kin in the Himalayas. Thanks to a new reserve established in 2016 in the Tost Mountains on the southern border – bridging two existing national parks – Mongolia also now boasts one of the largest snow leopard safe havens on the planet.
There are various ways to explore this epic wilderness, characterised by sheer ravines, steppe grassland and glacier-flanked peaks. Choose between 4×4 vehicles, horse treks or hiking on foot – or a combination of all three – and, if you can, camp out in order to maximise your time here.
Leopards aren’t the only local felines: the furry manul (Pallas’ cat) favours the rocky plains of these foothills, while Eurasian lynxes also pass through. Besides cats there are several endemic mammals, from the huge-horned argali sheep and Siberian ibex to Przewalski horses (the last truly wild horses), which thrive in Hustai National Park.
Track down the UK’s most purr-fect predator
A wild cat living in the UK? Believe it or not, it’s true. The ‘Highland tiger’ is a subspecies of European wildcat, and today this bona-fide Brit is our country’s largest remaining wild carnivore. At a quick glance they look pretty similar to a domestic moggy, but there are some key distinctions, including a stockier body, broad stripes in the fur and a much thicker tail patterned with black rings.
Extremely shy by nature and limited to just a handful of sites in and around Scotland’s Grampian Mountains, you have to be realistic about your chances of a sighting, but there are some top tips. Normally, these cats are most active at low light during dawn and dusk, but in the winter they’re more likely to be hunting in the day, so this is a good time to visit. Also, vegetation dies back at this time of year and snow on the ground makes spotting paw tracks far easier.
Whenever you go, be sure to schedule in a stop at the Highland Wildlife Park in the Cairngorms National Park to see these small-but-perfectly- formed predators up close.
Spot the missing lynx
With an estimated 400 Iberian lynx in the wild, this on-the-brink species is the planet’s rarest cat. Although this is a marked improvement from the sub-100 population of 2002, there’s still a lot of work to be done.
Intermittent reports of lynx come in from much of southern and central Spain and across the border into Portugal, but their greatest stronghold today is Andújar Natural Park (which abuts the Sierra de Cardeña y Montoro Natural Park) in the Sierra Morena mountain range.
Take a pair of binoculars and some snacks to tide you over, find a high patch of ground that overlooks open scrubland, then settle in to play the waiting game. While you wait, remember that lynx aren’t the only endangered species residing in this hilly wilderness. Other animals to be on the lookout for are Iberian wolves, black storks and imperial eagles – Spain’s national bird.
Words: Adam Millward