If your sense of adventure is strong, no doubt you’ll find yourself traveling the world and encountering all its dangers. Mother Nature is extremely deadly and preparing to face whatever obstacle she throws at you ahead of time may mean the difference between life and death.
Large predator encounters are not unheard of, both at home and abroad. For most heading into the backwoods, they are most likely to come across wolves or bears. But for those who find themselves in mountainous regions or international locations, these run-ins might include members of the big cat family. From mountain lions to the lions of the Serengeti, here’s what to expect if you cross paths with a big cat in the wild.
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Venturing out onto trails in the western mountain ranges is a feat on many levels—it takes a physical toll, the weather is unpredictable and at any second you may have to defend against a hungry big cat predator. The West Coast is mountain lion country, and though encounters are rare, these animals are there. I sometimes come across evidence of deer or other kills. And lion scat is unmistakable and very different to what bears leave behind.
Twice I came face to face with mountain lions—cougar or puma to some—both times in a remote part of that truly lovely forest that reaches up and over the tough hikes above Fort Columbia. The second time was the worst because I was heading back to where I’d left my rig, far below, when suddenly there was a mountain lion on the forestry road about 60 yards ahead. It was a big, mature animal and it didn’t see me until it I’d cleared the scrub. Instead of disappearing again, it turned to face me in the middle of the track. I also came to an abrupt halt. There was only one road that led “back home” and this creature was blocking it.
It would be lying if I said the experience wasn’t unnerving. I was unarmed and on the lion’s turf. We looked at each other for about 30 seconds and then the animal moved slowly and sedately into a clump of heavy scrub. I followed minutes later, only too aware that that I had a pair yellow eyes watching, or possibly more, because as the locals quaintly say in these parts, “If there is one, there are two.”
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I traveled extensively along the coasts of Washington and Oregon over the years and I always asked about mountain lions wherever I stopped. What emerged is that in spite of hunting, there are a lot of them about in both states.
On one of my journeys, returning by road up the coast from San Francisco, I took a shortcut from the main I-5 route. The road was rough work because there was still ice in places, but I headed over the hills anyway, all the way across the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest towards the coast. Before hitting Highway 101, I stopped and spoke to a bunch of locals. Yes, they said, there were mountain lions in the hills behind, more than people like to believe, they added, even though I hadn’t seen any on the road.
It was their view, that because these animals had multiplied in recent years, there were lot less people walking these mountains than before. Hound hunting of cougars has been twice banned by public referendum in Oregon in recent decades, and the cougar population had doubled.
About 90 percent of attacks in North America have been on children. This is because kids are small, relatively defenseless unless they are carrying firearms and usually helpless against the kind of sheer muscle power these animals are blessed with. Most times, the victims have been caught out alone and in open terrain.
On my own encounter with these predators, I could have made a run for it, but I didn’t because my actions were based on logic. Predators have been known to use the “fight or flight” response to their own advantage and invariably the quandary who tries to run—it would have been me this time—usually comes off second best. With my encounter, I had to wait until after the mountain lion had cleared the road ahead, and in the next 20 minutes or so I made quick, long, purposeful strides down the hill. I also constantly looked over my shoulder to see if it was following me.
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There are several lessons here that are applicable to other parts of the world where predators are present:
- Don’t panic. Lions, like humans, are also afraid of the “unknown.” When I ran into that mountain lion, I stopped in my tracks and projected neither aggression nor fear. When I pulled myself up to my full height, it was the mountain lion that “blinked” and moved away.
- Running from an encounter may not always be the best choice. That tells the animal that you are fearful. Deer and other creatures of the wild always make tracks when they encounter predators, and they are hunted down.
- If the cougar does appear to become aggressive, raise your arms above your head and shout out in a loud voice. This should be an aggressive sound, not a scream, and done with purpose. Several wildlife experts have also suggested taking a few steps forward to show that you are not afraid of the creature.
- Remember that most times predators have any kind of contact with humans, they are likely to be shot at. From past experience, therefore, mountain lions are fearful of us. The corollary to that is when these predators are forced out of their natural habitats because of development, food sometimes becomes scarce and there are consequently more attacks.
- Another reason why the mountain lion did not follow through in my encounter could have been because there are a lot of deer on the hills facing the Columbia River. In other words, there is food in abundance. Lions only kill for food and with rare exception act as “wanton killers.”
Deep Forest Dangers
You may also encounter a lynx during your travels. These large cats are found in North America, Asia and in good numbers in Africa. There are two species north of Central America, the “Canada” lynx and the American bobcat, though the latter, achieving a maximum weight of about 30 pounds, is small compared to a 60-pound Eurasian lynx.
Usually living solitary existences, their habitats are more dictated by the availability of food than isolation. While many live in forests or mountainous areas, they are also found in farmlands and, unlike mountain lions, are not aggressive. Indeed, there are many instances on record of lynx having been hunted down by coyote.
The chances of your even sighting a lynx in the wild are remote, never mind being attacked or confronted by one. Consequently, you can consider yourself lucky if you do see one. Worth mentioning is that the common lynx is an avid fish eater, and if you know where to look, they can sometimes be spotted along the Pacific Coast trying to corner spawning salmon in shallow pools—but they won’t hang around once you arrive. A cornered lynx is another matter. Any big cat that has been cornered will fight ferociously for freedom and can cause serious injury to anybody in the way.
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The black panthers that are sometimes encountered by hunters in tropical regions of South and Central America can best be described as leopards without spots. In a word, these are dangerous critters, much more so than their North American cousins because more lives have been lost to them since they were first sighted by Spanish invaders in the 16th century.
The European naturalist W.H. Hudson is on record as declaring black panthers as “much more dangerous than either the spotted jaguar or the American puma,” which could be one of the reasons why native tribes in the Amazon basin maintain that these creatures have come to symbolize death in this area.
As with the larger North American predators, you need to be cautious if moving in areas where either panthers or jaguars are known to proliferate. They have been known to hunt humans if they sense the prey is isolated or fearful. Consequently, a bold approach when encountering one would be the way to go, though one should never be foolhardy because, as with all predators, they are unpredictable in their actions.
One early British explorer who was jumped by a panther in the South American jungle was “ambushed” and killed. When his attacker was hunted down the following day, it was found that the animal had a huge abscess in its jaw and that apart from the human kill, there was evidence of other food. Basically, the animal couldn’t hunt and was starving, which was bad luck for the passing human.
As with most wild animals, big cats typically do not approach humans and stay away from what is unfamiliar. Nevertheless, we should always be prepared to defend ourselves in case our encounters turn into violent attacks.
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This article was originally published in the SURVIVOR’S EDGE™ Fall 2015 edition. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.