The Big Cats

It hardly needs to be said that aside from being on the top rung of the predation ladder, the lion also tops the glamour stakes. Sadly, it does have one formidable enemy in humankind, who has expelled it from most parts of the country so that it now remains almost exclusively in conservation areas.

The beautiful leopard survives in a larger area, including much of the southern Cape and the far north, although numbers are small in some places.

The third of the famous big cats is particularly fascinating. The cheetah is the speed champ, capable of dashes of almost 100km an hour. However, vulnerable to the loss of cubs to other predators, the cheetah's population is comparatively small and confined in South Africa to the far north (including KNP in the north-east and the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in the western half of the country), and reserves in KwaZulu-Natal and North West Province.

Another factor limiting the population is the low genetic diversity - today's cheetahs appear to be descended from a small number of survivors of a near extinction in the distant past. As a result genetic weaknesses are unusually predominant.

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