The four big cats—lions, tigers, leopards, and jaguars—are an impressive and majestic group of animals. They can be found in a variety of different environments, from the African savannah to the South American jungle to the snowy forests of Russia. All four big cats belong to the genus Panthera and they have a special two-piece hyoid bone in their throat that allows them to roar. This, along with their size, is what sets them apart from all other cats.
Lions, tigers, leopards, and jaguars are all apex predators and play a crucial part in their ecosystem. Because they sit at the top of the food chain, they play an important role in keeping other populations in check. Lions, for example, prey on zebras and wildebeest (among other animals). In doing so, they help to protect grasslands from overgrazing and their habitat from degradation. Without big cats, the number of prey animals would multiply rapidly and seek territory in human settlements, which would raise the risk of their starvation and disease.
So, by protecting big cats and their habitat, we help whole ecosystems to thrive. We’re not just protecting lions, tigers, jaguars, and leopards. We’re also protecting the species they feed upon and the habitats in which they live.
To get to know big cats a little better, here are some amazing big cat facts.
What is the scientific name for big cats?
All big cats belong to the genus Panthera and they each have their own scientific name. Lions are known as Panthera leo, tigers as Panthera tigris, leopards as Panthera pardus, and jaguars as Panthera onca.
What is the conservation status of big cats?
The conservation status of big cats varies by species, with each one classed differently by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Tigers are listed as endangered. They face a very high risk of extinction in the wild, with just 4,500 individuals estimated to remain. Lions and leopards are both classed as vulnerable. However, the Amur leopard, a subspecies of leopard that lives in the far east of Russia, is classed as critically endangered—there are only 100 Amur leopards left in the wild. Jaguars, who are listed as near threatened, are fairing a little better, but their population is still decreasing. The species is likely to qualify for the threatened category in the near future.
Where do big cats live?
Big cats can be found across Asia and Africa, and also in South and Central America.
Tigers are native to Asia. They live in the semi-tropical jungles of Indonesia (on the island of Sumatra), India, Bangladesh, and Nepal, but you’ll also find Siberian tigers in the snowy, coniferous forests of Russia. These big cats have adapted to live in temperatures ranging from -40°C to +40°C.
African lions famously live on savannah grasslands in central and southern Africa, though there is also a small group of Asiatic lions living in the Indian jungle.
Like lions, leopards live in Asia, the Caucasus, and Africa, in jungles, on the savannah, and in grasslands, woodlands, and riverine forests. Their range is vast, as they can be found in countries as widespread as Armenia, Yemen, Thailand, and Sri Lanka.
The jaguar is the only big cat to live outside Asia and Africa. It spends its time in jungles and savannahs throughout South and Central America.
There are a number of threats facing big cats. Habitat loss, conflict with humans, climate change, and the illegal wildlife trade all impact big cat populations. Many of these threats exacerbate one another. Habitat loss, for example, is the root cause of increased human-wildlife conflict, while climate change is making it harder for big cats to find their natural prey.
Each big cat faces unique challenges, but all are endangered by four key threats:
Big cats are losing their habitats to deforestation and agriculture, while illegal logging, new roadways, and monoculture tree plantations are also reducing the amount of space big cats have to roam.
Now extinct in Uruguay and El Salvador, Jaguars have lost 50% of their natural habitat, with 20% lost in just the last 14 years. Lions, too, have lost around 92% of the land they once occupied, while tigers, who were once found in Turkey and Afghanistan, have lost around 95% of their historical habitat. This is particularly problematic because it makes it harder for them to hunt and mate, as their populations become more isolated and less connected.
Shrinking habitats lead big cats to look for food and territory beyond protected areas, bringing them into closer contact with humans. It’s now common for big cats to prey on livestock, leading farmers to hunt and kill them either in retaliation or to protect their livelihoods.
Climate change is causing extreme drought, flooding, heatwaves, forest fires, and storms in big cat habitats. While big cats are relatively well-adapted to climate extremes, extreme weather events can affect the availability of prey and drinking water.
Tigers living in the mangrove forests of India and Bangladesh, for example, are faced with rising sea levels that could soon eliminate their home and their prey.
Illegal trade is another significant threat to big cats—poaching is heavily depleting their numbers.
Their bones are thought to have healing properties and are commonly used in Asian medicine. While tiger bones were traditionally sought after, it is now common practice to use lion bones as well, as tiger bones are in short supply. Pelts and teeth are also championed as status symbols and collected as prizes.
Wildlife trade doesn’t just affect the number of big cats in the wild. The WWF estimates that more than 8,000 tigers are held in captive breeding farms in Asia to support the production of tiger products and illegal trade.
Do big cats purr?
No, they don’t purr. Lions, tigers, jaguars, and leopards all roar. They can do this thanks to their hyoid bone, a tiny neck bone. While many mammals have hyoid bones (humans included), theirs isn’t completely rigid, like most. Instead, it boasts a stretchy ligament that makes it flexible and allows the big cat to roar.
Which big cat has the strongest bite?
All big cats have impressive jaw strength, but there are two contenders for the strongest bite: tigers, who officially have the strongest bite of all big cats, and jaguars, who have the strongest bite in relation to their size.
How many big cats are there?
There are four types of big cats: lions, tigers, leopards, and jaguars.
Some scientists argue that the snow leopard is the fifth big cat, and it is now officially included in the genus Panthera. However, there’s still debate about its inclusion. Many biologists think that a snow leopard is too different from the other big cats to be placed in the same genus. While its size is in keeping with the true big cats, it doesn’t have the hyoid bone adaptation, so it can’t roar.
Are cheetahs big cats?
The answer depends on who you ask. Some scientists argue that cheetahs are not big cats because they belong to the genus Acinonyx, not Panthera. They also have a different hyoid bone than the four true big cats, meaning they can’t roar.
However, cheetahs are quite literally ‘big cats’. They, along with species like cougars and lynx, are sometimes placed in the big cat category.
What is the strongest big cat?
Leopards are smaller than lions, tigers, and jaguars. However, relative to their size, they are the strongest of all big cats.
They can drag animals bigger and heavier than they are into tree branches. This helps protect their kill from non-climbing scavengers on the ground and gives them time to enjoy a meal in peace.
What is the largest big cat?
IFAW is working to secure a better future for big cats with the help of partners, governments, and local communities around the world.
In 2018, we launched the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online, alongside WWF and TRAFFIC. This partnership brings together companies and wildlife experts from around the world to tackle wildlife trafficking online. Since its inception, the initiative has helped block and remove over twelve million listings for endangered and threatened species, including big cats.
We are working with Maasai communities in Kenya to find and implement sustainable solutions that help communities live peacefully alongside big cats and other African wildlife.
With the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), IFAW has been working in Central India for over a decade on mitigating human-tiger conflicts, allowing safe passage for tigers, reducing human pressures on already fragmented corridors, and integrating stakeholder support in conservation management of tiger habitats. IFAW-WTI has also worked to strengthen protection for these big cats by building the capacity of frontline staff (rangers), providing legal and enforcement assistance to wildlife enforcement agencies, and conducting anti-snare walks in critical tiger habitats.
We work to protect big cats in the US too, where as many as 10,000 big cats live in captivity. In 2017, we established the Big Cat Sanctuary Alliance (BCSA), a network of sanctuaries that cooperate to ensure that captive cats have a safe place to go when they are rescued. At the federal policy level, we also worked to pass the Big Cat Public Safety Act. This legislation, signed into law in December 2022, made private ownership of big cats and physical contact between the public and captive big cats illegal. As a result of these combined efforts, since 2003, we’ve rescued 189 captive big cats and placed them in legitimate sanctuaries.
In 2020, IFAW provided X-rays and essential protective gear for the rehabilitation of Covi, a young jaguar injured from a car strike. After months under the specialized care of Payo Obispo Zoo and state officials from Quintana Roo, Mexico, Covi made a full recovery and was released back into the wild. This release was the first of its kind in the area—a groundbreaking success worth celebrating. IFAW continues to work with other NGOs, community members, and all levels of government to advance conservation efforts for jaguars in Mexico.
To mitigate human-wildlife conflict and achieve coexistence between jaguars and communities, IFAW developed the Casitas Azules project (little blue houses). Through Casitas Azules, we work with communities in Quintana Roo to build dog houses that provide adequate shelter and prevent dogs from roaming at night and attracting jaguars. The team also implements jaguar deterrents like light installation and holds wellness clinics to control community animal populations and prevent disease transmission to jaguars.
During the conflict in Ukraine, IFAW has been supporting local wildlife rescue centers with food and veterinary care for and the evacuation and transportation of big cats. Many big cats were purchased as pets, and as they grew older, the owners no longer wanted them. The animals were then left behind when families had to evacuate because of the war or were surrendered anonymously to avoid potential prosecution. In other cases, big cats were rescued from breeding facilities where they were unable or unwilling to continue to care for the big cats as resources became scarce. It is believed that there are many more big cats (mostly lions) in private homes in need of rescue within the country. We continue to work with local partners to assist them in rescuing and evacuating big cats in need in Ukraine regardless of their age and location, whenever it is both legal and safe for human rescuers.
How can you help?
Big cats play an important part in balancing our ecosystems, but they face many human-made threats and an uncertain future. They need our help.
You can help protect big cats by avoiding any big cat sanctuary or zoo that doesn’t have the animals’ best interests at heart. You can also report illegal wildlife products that you see for sale online, either by contacting us through our social media platforms or by using this report form.
You can also donate. Your donations fund IFAW conservation programs and projects around the world, protecting big cats and other endangered species.