India – a country synonymous with a dynamic range of wildlife species, also provides a safe haven to the top 4 big cats in the world, the Royal Bengal Tiger, Asiatic Lion, Indian Leopard and the Snow Leopard. With continuous and efficient conservation efforts across departments, today, the population of these big cats seems to be growing at a steady pace. Let us read through some distinctive characteristics of each of these big cats and where to find them in India.
1. The Royal Bengal Tiger
The Royal Bengal Tiger (Panthera Tigris) is second in line to its kin the Sumatran Tiger, which is by far the largest tiger sub species in the world. Coming in only second, the national animal of India, the Tiger, is a walking enigma. It’s black stripes on an ochre coat paint a contrasting yet dominating figure in the Indian jungle. The Tiger’s presence in India has only strengthened over the years, owing most of its population growth to the success of Project Tiger.
Some facts about the Bengal Tiger:
|Size||2.7 – 3.1 meters||2.4 – 2.6 meters|
|Weight||200 – 260 Kgs||116 – 164 Kgs|
|Current Population||Estimated 2967 tigers (NTCA – 2021 statistics)|
They have enormous power.
A Bengal Tiger’s powerful structures allow him to drag a prey for over a mile, even if the prey is heavier than his own weight.
Among different carnivorous species, the Bengal Tiger possesses the longest canine.
Royal Bengal Tiger canines can grow up to 4 inches long and are longer than lions. These powerful beasts also have sheath-able claws that aid in climbing. Their vision is superior to that of many other animals, and they have extraordinary hearing.
Bengal Tigers are solitary creatures.
They prefer the lowlands, where they can be found in grasslands, marshes, and mangroves. These solitary (unsocial) animals usually only get together during the breeding season. They are occasionally seen in groups of three to four tigers.
The Bengal Tigers own a lot of land.
Tigers may appear to be lethargic animals during the day, dozing and relaxing, but once awake, they are known to travel great distances, protecting and owning a territory that can reach up to 200 square miles at times.
- Bengal Tigers have the ability to climb trees.
However, in the pursuit of a kill, these heavy creatures can mount a tree, though they appear ungainly doing so.
- They are great swimmers.
These tigers have reformed by becoming ardent swimmers in the mangrove ecology, which is an affluent habitat for them. Even in the water, prey cannot escape their formidable jaws.
Best places to see the Bengal Tiger in India:
- Bandhavgarh National Park
- Corbett National Park
- Tadoba National Park
- Kanha National Park
- Ranthambore National Park
Best tours to see the Bengal Tiger in India:
2. Asiatic Lion
The Asiatic Lion that once roamed throughout Arabia, Asia Minor, Persia and India, is now indigenous to the state of Gujarat, in the protected forests of Sasan Gir National Park. Asiatic lions are predators with a similar appearance and stature to African lions. They are, nevertheless, slightly smaller than their African ancestors. Other notable differences include: tassels at the end of their tails and bunches of hair on their elbows are longer than those of African lions; unlike their African cousins, Asian lions have long folds of skin stretching along their bellies; and their manes are shorter than those of African lions, allowing the ears to be seen. Asian lions have strong retractable claws and sharp canine teeth, like do all cats. Their fur ranges in hue from buffish-grey with occasional silvery tones to ruddy-tawny with black patches.
Some facts about the Asiatic Lion:
|Size||1.68 – 2 meters||1.4 – 1.73 meters|
|Weight||150 – 250 Kgs.||120-0185 Kgs|
|Current Population||Total 350 individuals|
The lion’s prey includes deer, cattle, antelope and wild pigs. Their preference is for large prey – animals that weigh considerably more than the lion itself.
Asiatic lions, like African lions, live in prides, which are tiny familial and social groups. Asian lion prides are often smaller than African lion prides. Most Asian lion prides only have two females, but African lion prides contain four to six females. Males usually only interact with females when hunting huge prey or mating.
Asiatic lions will mate with females all year long. At around five years of age, the males will reach sexual maturity, while the females will reach sexual maturity at four years of age. The gestation period for females is from 100 – 119 days. Females can give birth to as many as six cubs.
This big cat has an average life span of about 16-18 years.
Best places to see the Asiatic Lion in India:
- Sasan Gir National Park
Best tours to see the Asiatic Lion in India:
3. Indian Leopard
Third in list of the top 4 big cats in India, the Indian or Common Leopard makes its presence felt across various landscapes and forest types across the country. Supremely stealth and adaptable in nature, the leopard has time and again proven to be a much more elusive cat, compared to the Bengal tiger. Yet somehow, we get to witness its rosettes sneaking around the tall ghost trees.
Some facts about the Indian/Common Leopard:
|Size||2.19 – 2.37 meters||1.55 – 1.57 meters|
|Weight||50 – 77 Kgs||29 – 34 Kgs|
|Current Population||Total 13535 individuals|
The Indian Leopard has larger rosettes than the other subspecies, and its coat is paler in deserts, greyer in colder climates, and more ochre in rainforests. Rosettes, like other leopard subspecies, have a pattern that is unique to each individual and can be used to distinguish them. Males are larger and heavier than females, and they are sexually dimorphic. Asiatic lions, like African lions, live in prides, which are tiny familial and social groups. Asian lion prides are often smaller than African lion prides. Most Asian lion prides only have two females, but African lion prides contain four to six females. Males usually only interact with females when hunting huge prey or mating.
Indian Leopards, like other leopard subspecies, are solitary predators who stay well-camouflaged at night but climb down from trees to hunt during the day. They are more likely to haul their kills up trees where they coexist with rival predators such as Bengal Tigers, Striped Hyenas, and Dholes. They are opportunistic predators with huge heads and powerful jaw muscles, designed to kill medium-sized herbivores rather than speed. The Indian Leopard eats mostly Chital, Sambar, and Langur species, although they’ve also been reported to eat Spotted Deer, Nilai, Wild Pig, cow, hare, dog, and porcupine.
Leopards often mate throughout the year, giving birth to two to three cubs after a 90 to 105-day gestation period. The female gives birth in a remote and well-hidden location in the forest, and the cubs stay there for up to eight weeks until they are ready to accompany their mother around. They spend another two years with their mother, learning to hunt by following and watching her.
Best places to see the Leopard in India:
- Jawai Leopard Safari Reserve
- Satpura National Park
- Tadoba National Park
- Gir National Park
- Bandipur Tiger Reserve
Best tours to see the Leopard in India:
4. Snow Leopard
Snow leopards have adapted to survive in some of the most extreme environments on the planet. Their thick white-gray coat, flecked with huge black rosettes, mixes in beautifully with Asia’s stony, high mountains, the Himalayas. They are often known as the “ghost of the mountains” because of their excellent natural camouflage, which allows them to blend in with their surroundings.
Snow leopards play a key role as a top predator, an indicator of the health of their high-altitude habitat, and, increasingly, an important indicator of the impacts of climate change on mountain environments. If snow leopards thrive, so will countless other species and the largest freshwater reservoirs of the planet.
Some facts about the Snow Leopard:
|Size||1.2 – 1.5 meters|
|Weight||30 – 55 Kgs|
|Current Population||Total estimated 4000-6000|
The snow leopard’s strong frame helps it to easily traverse large steep hills. It can leap six times its body length thanks to its rear legs. A long tail aids agility, provides balance, and protects the resting snow leopard from the elements.
This beautiful cat reigned over the mountains for millennia. Blue sheep, Argali wild sheep, ibex, marmots, pikas, and hares were abundant in the mountains. The habitat range of the snow leopard includes 12 Asian countries: Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The whole range is around 772,204 square miles, with China accounting for 60% of the habitat. However, more than 70% of the snow leopard’s habitat has yet to be investigated. In Nepal, home range sizes range from 4.6-15.4 square miles to over 193 square miles.
Best places to see the Snow Leopard in India:
- Hemis National Park
- Ulley Valley