The term "big cat" is typically used to refer to any of the five living members of the genus Panthera, namely tiger, lion, jaguar, leopard, and snow leopard. Except the snow leopard, these species are able to roar. A more liberal and expansive definition of the term includes species outside of Panthera including the cougar, clouded leopard, Sunda clouded leopard, cheetah and sometimes the several lynx species, although these added species also do not roar.
Despite enormous differences in size, various cat species are quite similar in both structure and behaviour, with the exception of the cheetah, which significantly stands out from the other big and small cats. All cats are carnivores and some are efficient apex predators. Their native ranges include the Americas, Africa, and Asia.
The ability to roar comes from an elongated and specially adapted larynx and hyoid apparatus. When air passes through the larynx on the way from the lungs, the cartilage walls of the larynx vibrate, producing sound. The lion's larynx is longest, giving it the most robust roar. The roar in good conditions can be heard 8 or even 10 km away. All five extant members of the genus Panthera contain this elongated hyoid but owing to differences in the larynx the snow leopard cannot roar.
The principal threats to big cats vary by geographic location, but primarily are habitat destruction and poaching. In Africa many big cats are hunted by pastoralists or government 'problem animal control' officers. Certain protected areas exist that shelter large and exceptionally visible populations of African leopards, lions and cheetahs, such as Botswana's Chobe, Kenya's Masai Mara, and Tanzania's Serengeti. Rather, it is outside these conservation areas where hunting poses the dominant threat to large carnivores.
In the United States, 19 states have banned ownership of big cats and other dangerous exotic animals as pets, and the Captive Wildlife Safety Act bans the interstate sale and transportation of these animals. The initial Captive Wildlife Safety Act (CWSA) was signed into law on December 19, 2003. To address problems associated with the increasing trade in certain big cat species, the CWSA regulations were strengthened by a law passed on September 17, 2007. The big cat species addressed in these regulations are the lion, tiger, leopard, snow leopard, clouded leopard, cheetah, jaguar, cougar, and any hybrid of these species (liger, tigon, etc.). Private ownership is not prohibited, but the law makes it illegal to transport, sell, or purchase such animals in interstate or foreign commerce. Although these regulations seem to provide a strong legal framework for controlling the commerce involving big cats, international organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) have encouraged the U.S. to further strengthen these laws. The WWF is concerned that weaknesses in the existing U.S. regulations could be unintentionally helping to fuel the black market for tiger parts.
For the population of the big cats, see List of carnivorans by population
An animal sanctuary provides a refuge for animals to live out their natural lives in a protected environment. Usually these animal sanctuaries are the organizations which provide a home to big cats whose private owners are no longer able or willing to care for their big cats. However, use of the word sanctuary in an organization's name is by itself no guarantee that it is a true animal sanctuary in the sense of a refuge. To be accepted by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) as a bona fide animal sanctuary and to be eligible for an exemption from the prohibition of interstate movement of big cats under the Captive Wildlife Safety Act (CWSA), organizations must meet the following criteria:
Must be a non-profit entity that is tax exempt under section 501(a) of the Internal Revenue Code
Cannot engage in commercial trade in big cat species, including their offspring, parts, and products made from them
Cannot breed big cats
Cannot allow direct contact between big cats and the public at their facilities
Must keep records of transactions involving covered cats
Must allow the service to inspect their facilities, records, and animals at reasonable hours