Wikijunior:Big Cats/Meet The Cats
In Africa, they say that a male lion roars Hii inchi na ya nani? Ni yangu, yangu, yangu! (Whose land is this? It is mine, mine, mine!). It is hard to listen to this ancient challenge without edging a little closer to the campfire. But what is behind that remarkable call? Certainly, to some degree, all cats are cats, everywhere you look. When you see one of the neighborhood tabbies stalking a squirrel, you can see a miniature tiger stalking deer on the meadows of Rhanthambore.
Tigers and lions are among nature's grandest predators. A grizzly bear may be larger than a Siberian tiger, but the tiger is much quicker. A wolf may have a better sense of smell than a jaguar, but a jaguar can handle large prey alone while wolves hunt in packs. Cats have excellent night vision, sharp hearing and enormous physical strength. They sneak up on their prey; the camouflage patterns in their fur and their graceful, quiet movements make the cats difficult to notice.
There are cats for every job. Each continent except Antarctica has its cat king. Africa is ruled by the lion, Asia by the tiger (although the Himalayas are too high for tigers; there the snow leopard is king.) In South and Central America the monarch is certainly the jaguar. North America is the domain of the puma. Australia has no big cats, but it has many small cats that descend from tame cats but have since gone wild. Like their giant relatives, these cats have become keen predators even if they are much the same as the pet cats that you have met.
The natural order is carefully balanced. There are a few big predators. Under them are more medium sized cats that eat medium sized prey ranging from rabbits to antelopes and deer. Finally, there are many small cats (including loose pet cats) that eat the far more numerous small prey like insects, rodents, lizards, and birds. The secret to their success is the concept of the niche, a special job each cat holds that keeps it from competing with others. A shopping mall with nothing but music stores would see a lot of fighting over customers. Like a shopping mall, a natural environment keeps order by having a variety of different plants, prey species, and hunters. The field mice that don't interest the tiger keep the wild cat happy, and the cheetah zooms after a small antelope while leaving the buffalo for the stronger lions.
Meat on the Menu
Cats hunt because they need meat to survive. Animals that eat grass and leaves have special stomachs that allow bacteria to break down complex plant sugars into the simpler sugars animals can digest. Cats have a very short digestive tract that quickly breaks down meat and absorbs its energy and building materials. Cats cannot survive on a diet of grass, therefore they live from the meat they can get from other plant-eating animals. That is how the food chain works.
Cats are among the most intelligent species on Earth. They are ranked just behind primates (monkeys and apes), cetaceans (whales and dolphins), elephants, pigs, and seals. Lions hunt in groups when they tackle large and dangerous prey. All cats are very curious and can learn quickly. Large predators need to be extra smart in order to be successful as hunters. Mother cats spend a long time (one to two years) teaching their offspring the many things they need to know in order to survive. You may also consider this time of their life as their school time, where they learn how to deal with the world they live in.
Found Everywhere But Safe Nowhere
Cats are native to all continents but Australia and Antarctica. In Australia, the only cats are small ones -- domestic cats and their feral (domesticated animals gone wild) descendants that kill small animals as effectively as the great cats kill larger animals. Unfortunately, many of these wonderful creatures face extinction or are critically endangered. (There are about 700 million cats worldwide, roughly one for every ten humans -- and those cats are in no danger of extinction). Wild large cats are often hunted for their fur or meat. In Asia, thousands of tigers are killed each year just for their body parts. They are also killed by people who want the animals that cats hunt all to themselves. Still other people hunt cats for sport. Worse, the healthy environment that cats need to survive is not being treated with the respect it deserves.
Fortunately, more and more people now think of cats as companions to be admired rather than enemies to be destroyed. Learn more about these great cats and their remarkable world and share what you learn with your family and friends. After all, when we understand something, we can appreciate its value much better. Valuable things, including the marvelous cats, large and small, are worth protecting. To keep these superb predators in the world our children and grandchildren will live in, we must learn to make room for other living things to use Earth's limited resources.