Let us now discuss Africa’s most elusive predator – the leopard. These wild cats are masters of stealth, and are certainly the most coveted sighting on safaris – ask any tracker, driver or safari enthusiast. As described in Londolozi’s blog, they epitomise Africa; the sighting of one is never guaranteed, and the allure of this spotted animal is representative of the allure of the continent itself.
They prefer to hunt under the cover of the night, utilising their highly-adapted night vision and hearing to their advantage. In addition, unlike lions or wild dogs, where the entire pride or pack aids in raising and protecting the offspring, leopard mothers still have to hunt, protect and raise their cubs single-handedly. Members of this species prefer to remain in solitude, with the exception of mating or raising their young.
I must admit, I have been quite spoilt in having previously experienced the presence of this magnificent animal from a young age, having frequented national parks in Sri Lanka, such as Yala, which boasts the highest density of leopard compared to anywhere else in the world, but is also home to the largest of them all. In saying this, however, I never cease to be amazed by their immeasurable beauty.
YALA, SRI LANKA
My most memorable encounter with a leopard was without a doubt, in 2004, just after Christmas. This particular period may ring a bell, in that it was just after the Indian Ocean earthquake on Boxing Day that year, resulting in the devastating tsunami that predominantly affected the south and east coasts of the island. By January 3rd, there were over 30,000 confirmed deaths. Yala was in the direct path of the tsunami, leading to immense destruction. Interestingly, prior to the event, many animals seemed to have fled the area, essentially demonstrating a sort of ‘sixth sense’ possessed by the wildlife in being able to predict this natural disaster.
Despite being merely 9 years old, I still distinctly remember driving through the Yala National Park, overwhelmed by the amount of washed-up debris and sand engulfing the mainland. One afternoon, we stumbled across a young, slight leopard. We watched him desperately chase butterflies, his paws flailing in all directions. However, the highlight of this sighting was without question observing his attempt of hunting a full-size porcupine. It was a sure once-in-a-lifetime experience.
BACK TO THE OKAVANGO DELTA, BOTSWANA
Certain parts of Africa, and I mean probably only about 10% including Botswana, are privileged in being able to see leopards in this manner. This is the direct result of a combination of various factors, however the most predominant ones include an enforced prohibition of poaching, as well as sensitive viewing of these animals. By minimising our impact on the leopard population, we increase our probability of sighting them. Although rare glimpses of leopards are still possible in the remaining 90% of the continent, a long and dire history of human persecution of these beautiful creatures has ingrained an adaptive fear of humankind into the species. Therefore, it is only in certain areas, such as Botswana and other similar reserves, that we may see them behaving naturally and more relaxed in their environment.
On the 6th December 2017, we were driving in our open vehicle from the Moremi game reserve to Khwai, Botswana, when we stumbled upon various pieces of evidence indicating the presence of leopards in the area. We spotted tracks on the sandy road, which are the preferred terrain for their delicate paws, in addition to an impala carcass on a sausage tree branch (yes, that is in fact the true name for this species of tree, with no ambiguities in the name), where a leopard has dragged his or her kill for an afternoon snack whilst escaping the African sun.
We were merely driving on a main road when we accidentally stumbled across a wild leopard. Just perched under a shady tree adjacent to the gravel, there it peacefully lay. In amazement, the driver half-shouted and half-whispered, “leopard!”, screeching the brakes to a firm halt. The leopard, shy, and spooked by the vehicle, briskly stood up and started on its way to find another, more tranquil tree, only about 6 metres from its original position. However, it was not laying there relaxed – its head was crouched just below a low-hanging branch. It pierced us with its feline, yellow eyes, staring intensely and watching every slight movement. It had the most beautiful face – spotted, yet perfectly symmetrical. Beautiful rosettes markings dappled its sleek body.
Something that I appreciated from this particular leopard was its distinctly different behaviour to the other predators seen on this safari adventure. It was an exceptionally graceful animal, but also very cautious and timid. Unlike the lions, there was not a lazy bone in its body. It was an intelligent beast, able to observe and calculate its next move, whether the intent be for hunting or silently slipping away into the grasses away from our vehicle, which is exactly the route it took.
Our second leopard encounter was on the 9th December 2017. One of the trackers had already spotted a leopard (don’t mind the pun!) on the highway in Khwai – a mother sighted with her cub, however the female was solo at this particular time when we admired her. She had hidden her cub away, so that she may hunt unencumbered. KB, our tracker, predicted from where exactly in the Mophani trees she was likely to eventually appear, by employing his knowledge of the behaviour of these beautiful creatures, in addition to using the directions provided by the other tracker. Between his expertise and a touch of luck, we were able to see perfectly, and only a mere metre or so away, the most beautiful wild cat. Just as the one seen when travelling from Moremi, this leopard was agile and graceful. However, surprisingly, she was unperturbed by the surrounding vehicles. She was on a mission to find food, and did not even blink twice at our presence.
We observed her animalistic behaviours in its natural habitat – we saw her ‘flaming’, which is when a leopard opens its mouth, exposes its teeth, and inhales particles from the air so as to accentuate its sense of smell (in this case, our smell). We watched her leap up onto old tree stumps and logs, and perch herself up to yield a better view of her surroundings. She was unbelievably picturesque, with the most beautiful yellow eyes and gorgeous fluffy white, curved tail. The way in which she dexterously moved was almost as if she was posing for my dSLR camera.
She was the epitome of felinity – elegant, agile and fearless.