The Lion, Panthera leo, needs no introduction. Those people who have seen the Lion King or have watched any of the numerous films set in Africa will be familiar with the Swahili name for Lion, "Simba". Although these are one of the most well-known and easily seen and recognised of the big cats they are nevertheless, quite unusual. Most cats are essentially solitary but Lions are social, with 1 to 3 males living in a "pride" with a variable number of females. They have a complex social behaviour which includes elaborate greeting rituals.
Unlike the lion, the Leopard, Panthera pardus, is a solitary animal. They are silent and wary and tend to glide away into the brush if disturbed. Being accomplished climbers you may see them during the day resting in a favourite tree or on a large rock. They also take larger kills up into the branches as a protection from passing scavengers. Many Kenyan lodges put out bait for the local Leopard, generally this consists of a goat haunch tied to a tree. This can allow you to get a really good look at one of these beautiful cats.
One of the world's fastest land animals, the Cheetah, Acinonyx jubatus, is another solitary cat. It has a distinctive sleek, streamlined shape with long legs and a very flexible spine. This makes it ideally suited to taking its favourite prey, Thomson's Gazelle. It can switch direction and twist and turn with remarable agility for an animal of its size. Unlike the rest of the cats, Cheetahs do not have retractile claws but they do have the most magnificent low purr when resting and content. One of our first ever encounters with a Cheetah in the wild was when we parked close to a family group consisting of a female and her 3 male cubs. The young were a bit over 12 months old and ready to set out on their own but the group were resting in the sun after a good meal. We suddenly became aware that our bus was vibrating, despite the engine being switched off, and after puzzling for a while realised that it was the sound of the group purring away to themselves!
The Serval, Leptailurus serval is a small cat which is about 45-55 cm high at the shoulder. It stalks its prey and then pounces on it from above. It is also accomplished at taking birds out of the air, it achieves this by leaping high and seizing the bird as it passes. It is a solitary and wary cat which is quite difficult to see. We consider ourselves to have been very fortunate to get a close look at a Serval and to have had an opportunity to photograph one at close quarters.
More info on African cats from IUCN Cat Specialist Group.
The Bat-eared Fox, Otocyon megalotis, looks very fox-like but isn't related to the other African foxes. It is mainly nocturnal or crepuscular spending the day either resting in its burrow or, as in the individual we photographed, sunbathing just outside the hole. They mate for life and form family parties with their offspring.
The Black-backed Jackal, Canis mesomelas, is another of the dog family that pairs for life. The young are reared by both parents and they hunt together in family parties. Jackals are opportunistic feeders who are equally at home hunting small antelope or scavenging at larger kills. Around human settlements they can become a nuisance as they will steal anything edible including new born livestock (goats, sheep etc). Although primarily carniverous they will also eat fruit and berries.
The Spotted Hyena, Crocuta crocuta, is one of 2 Hyenas found in Kenya (the other being the shy, purely nocturnal Striped Hyena Hyaena hyaena). Despite the size and superficial resemblance to a dog, Hyenas are not related to any of the canine species their closest relative is the Aardwolf. Hyenas have a formidable set of molars which can grind and crush just about anything, this allows them to make the most of any carrion they find (they will eat every part of an animal including bone, skin and hair). They will also eat dead of their own species. They are social animals being found in pairs or small packs (these can become quite large at certain times of year). Packs of Hyenas will work together to drive lions and other big cats off a kill. Hyenas will also hunt, taking young, old or sickly animals, they will also hunt down gazelle and will break into enclosures around human habitation to take livestock. The females are ferocious when it comes to defending their young.
The Striped Hyena, Hyaena hyaena, is a nocturnal and somewhat shy animal. It is active after sundown until around midnight when it rests. It is then active again just before dawn. It is smaller than the Spotted Hyena and less social but it does have a trick it plays to make itself look bigger. It is able to erect its long mane when threatened and this makes it look much bigger! It is normally solitary when out searching for food but associates in small family groups around the den. It is mostly a carrion eater and is attracted to the carcasses of large mammals such as zebra or wildebeest. It supplements its diet with fruit and insects but will also kill small mammals and birds. Interestingly it is not in conflict with man and in some areas garbage is deliberately left outside compounds for the Striped Hyenas to dispose of.
The Eastern Dwarf Mongoose, Helogale undulata, is a social animal travelling in family groups with around a dozen members. They are most active in the middle of the day when they go out hunting together. They feed mainly on insects but they also take snails, lizards, snakes, eggs and birds. They are also known to eat fruit and berries. Food such as snails and eggs are often opened by throwing them onto rocks (this is achieved by thrusting them backwards through their back legs using their fore feet).