|Wildlife: The Leopard||
The leopard is undoubtedly Africa's most beautiful cat, the most sought-after sighting on safari. It is also its most elusive, despite being one of the world's most widely distributed cats. So how can you improve your chances of seeing a leopard in the wild?
With population estimates for sub-Saharan Africa varying from 200,000 to 700,000 animals, the leopard is one of the more common and less vulnerable of the world's cats. It is not listed as a threatened species and has been placed on the CITES Appendix 1 list allowing quotas of legitimate sporting trophies and skins to be exported.
But if it is such an abundant and common predator, why is it so seldom seen in the wild?
Leopards are loners, relatively small in size and have a spotted coat pattern that works perfectly as camouflage in all kinds of habitats. Their preference for some form of cover and denser vegetation types makes them all the more difficult to see and they are usually very shy of human activity. In many parts of Africa leopards have been hunted extensively over the last 50 or 60 years, making them doubly wary of humans.
But in areas where hunting has been banned, such as some of the older national parks and associated private game areas, leopards are coming out of hiding. They have become more tolerant of humans and are being seen more regularly.
So, if you want to see a leopard, where should you go and what should you do to improve your chances?
Know where leopards are prevalent:
There is no doubt in my mind that the best place to see leopards is at one of the private reserves in the Sabi Sand Wildtuin bordering the southern part of the Kruger National Park in South Africa. The guides and trackers at these lodges generally have an intimate knowledge of the area and its individual leopards, gained from observing them for the past 20 years. Some lodges have up to 15 vehicles in the bush at any one time, all in radio contact with one another, and many of the leopards have become habituated to the presence of vehicles. Guides are generally allowed to drive their 4x4 vehicles off the roads, enabling them to keep following leopards into the bush. They are also allowed to do night drives with spotlights. All of these factors combine to greatly improve one's chances of seeing leopards.
I have seen leopards in national parks such as Etosha in Namibia, Samburu in Kenya and the Kalahari Gemsbok and Kruger in South Africa, but have been frustrated by the inability to follow the animals into the bush. Sightings can also be very good in Botswana's Okavango Delta, the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya and the Serengeti in Tanzania, where the open terrain allows for easier photography.
The Luangwa National Park in Zambia and the Nyika Plateau National Park in Malawi are reputed to offer good leopard viewing and the Matobo Hills National Park in Zimbabwe has a very high leopard population, but viewing can be frustrated by the rocky terrain.
Leopards occur in a wide variety of habitats from desert environments to dense forest, from emote mountains to savanna woodland. However, they are usually associated with riverine habitats or mountains, so it is a good idea to concentrate your search in areas where these preferred habitats occur.
To me, our sense of hearing is just about our most important sense when searching for things in the bush. Sounds can play a big role in helping you find leopards. If driving or walking, stop regularly and listen. Two types of sounds help to give away the presence of a leopard: The alarm calls of various animals and the calls of the leopard itself.
Most prey animals will give an alarm call if they spot a predator. These include the excited high-pitched chirping of birds, the chuckle of the banded mongoose, the chirruping of tree squirrels, the barks of various antelope such as busbbuck, kudu and nyala, the snorts of impala, the barking of baboons and the grunting of monkeys.
One of my most memorable leopard sightings occurred as a result of an alarm call. Eight of us were walking through Mkuzi Game Reserve in northern Natal in South Africa when the loud barking of a kudu broke the silence a few hundred metres from us. Knowing that no other predators occur there, except possibly cheetah, we suspected the kudu had seen a leopard. We walked quietly in the direction of the calls, stopping every few minutes to listen. The calls continued. As we came into a clearing the ranger signalled for us to stop. In the middle of the clearing was a beautiful female leopard, totally unaware she was being observed. We watched her closely for a good five minutes before she sensed us, turned and slunk into the Acacia thickets.
Leopards make a number of calls, the most common being a repeated grunting sound like a large-toothed saw cutting through wood. This is made by the female to attract a mate when she is in oestrus or by both sexes to proclaim territory. The call is usually repeated every few minutes over a period of anything up to a few hours, which gives you a chance to follow up on the call. It is not an easy sound to identify but if you do you'll be much closer to finding that elusive cat.
The call of a leopard resulted in another successful sighting at Buffelshoek Private Nature Reserve bordering the Kruger National Park. We had returned from an evening game drive and were cooking around the camp-fire when a leopard called nearby. We drove to where we had heard the call, searched the area carefully and switched off the engine to listen. The leopard called again. We followed through the bush in the direction of the sound and again stopped to listen. We carried on like this for a good 40 minutes, listening and following until we came around the corner and found a magnificent male strolling along a game path, stopping every few minutes to scent-mark against a bush, calling and walking. We followed him for a good hour before he crossed into the neighbouring game farm.
Time and effort in tracking down the call can be rewarding. One morning, at Lone Star Ranch in southern Zimbabwe, we were parked looking at some birds when a leopard called from a gully in the bush behind us. We waited quietly and the leopard called again, this time further from us. We looked at the birds a bit longer before leaving the area but returned about an hour later and there was the spoor of a big male leopard on top of our car tracks! Had we been more patient we might have seen him. On the other hand, if a leopard is afraid of human activity, there is very little chance you'll get to see him. He'll usually lie low in the thickets as you drive past or run away before you get there.
Use a tracker:
If you are in an area where leopards are accustomed to human and vehicle activity, a good tracker will greatly improve your chances of seeing them. At places like Londolozi Game Reserve in the Sabi Sand Wildtuin, a high percentage of sightings are a result of the tracking skills of the local Shangaan people. Again, it is important to have patience when tracking as the spoor can sometimes be difficult to see and will often go through dense terrain. The tracker will usually know how fresh the track is and most of the time will eventually catch up to the animal. Tracks can lead you to a lair where a leopard may have cubs or into a dense thicket where it may have made a kill - places you wouldn't have found if you had depended on spotting things as you drove along the roads. Remember that tracking must be done extremely carefully and with an armed guide.
Go searching at night:
Although it has become clear that leopards are more active in the day than we used to think, they are still predominantly nocturnal. The best time to search for leopards is at night, using spotlights from a vehicle, or in the early morning or late afternoon when they are ending or beginning their nocturnal wanderings.
Know the animal:
Do some background reading. The more you understand the leopard's behaviour and habits the better will be your chances of finding one.
Both male and female leopards are generally loners. You'll usually only see two or more together if mating or if you come across a female with cubs. Mating usually lasts two or three days and is carried out in dense bush, accompanied by loud growls and snarling, and as a result is seldom witnessed.
The cubs will be born in a carefully chosen lair. If you are lucky enough to find one of these lairs in the early weeks of the cubs' lives, the chances of seeing the leopard are greatly increased because the mother will be found regularly within close proximity.
As the cubs get older the mother spends more time away, until by the time they are four months old and weaned she'll be away for days at a time. She will hunt, hide the kill and return to the cubs, thereafter commuting between them and the kill.
When the cubs are about 12 months old the mother comes into oestrus again and starts showing aggression towards them, snarling and striking out every time they come close. One day she just doesn't return and the cubs find themselves on their own. They have to fend for themselves and gradually they start moving further afield and separate from one another.
Leopards hunt alone, occasionally with cubs. They walk though the bush, stopping regularly to look and listen for signs of potential prey, often climbing into a tree or onto a termite mound to scan the landscape. Once prey is spotted, the leopard spends infinite time stalking the prey, observing its movements to set an ambush where she believes it is likely to pass. Only when the leopard is 100% certain she can make a catch will she charge.
Interactions with other animals include clashes with the other predators. In most cases the leopard withdraws from potential conflict, particularly with lions and hyaenas. The only predator that a leopard is likely to stand up to is cheetah and I have observed a number of occasions where cheetahs have lost their kills to leopard.
The leopard's beautiful coat markings led to it being heavily exploited in the 1960s and '70s. However, changing public opinion towards the use of skins for fashion and the implementation of international trade controls has led to a decline in these threats and this, together with a decrease in hunting, has resulted in many more quality sightings of this magnificent predator and to a better understanding of it's way of life.
Genus & Species: Panthera pardus
Status: IUCN Classification: Category 5. Red Data Book:Rare. CITES Appendix 1.
Habitat: A wide range: mountains, rocks, bushveld, woodlands, desert, semi-desert, forest; from sea level to 2000m; anywhere between IOOmm-1200mm rain annually.
Description: Black spots on the legs, flanks, hindquarters and head, forming rosettes on the rest of the body. White tip to tail. Body length: 1,6-2,1 m; Tail: 0,68-1,1m; Weight: male 20-90kgs (ave. 45kg); female 17-60kgs (ave. 35kg); Shoulder height: 70-80cm
Of Eyes and Ears: The range of a leopard's hearing is reputed to be twice that of a human's and, in dim light, its sight six times better.
Diet: A variety of species from birds such as francolin and guinea-fowl to adult male waterbuck, topi or female kudu. Most common is medium-sized antelope such as impala, followed by warthog and duiker. Leopards do not depend on water, but drink when it is available.
Social System: Solitary, territorial. Males defend large territories which encompass those of 2 or 3 females. Males defend territories against other males, females against other females. It appears that females establish territories bordering their mother's, whilst the males get pushed out by the territorial males until they establish territories well removed from where they were born.
Amur leopard P.p. orientalis: A few individuals in eastern Siberia and an unknown number if Korea and north-eastern China. Endangered.
Barbary leopard P.p.panthera: Approx. 100 possible in the Atlas mountains. Endangered.
Sinai leopard P.p.jarvis: Sinai peninsula and Israel. Endangered.
South Arabian leopard P.p.nimr: Mountainous regions along coasts of Saidi Arabian Red Sea, South Yemen and Oman. Endangered.
Zanzibar leopard P.p.adersi: Now thought to be extinct.
* Black panthers are melanistic forms of ordinary spotted leopards, resulting from recessive genes in leopard populations.
Tracks: Male footprints larger and broader than female. Five digits on front feet, four on hind. strong protractile claws approx. 30mm across the curve. Dew claw used for holding prey. All claws and first digit do not mark in the spoor. The track is shown at end of all stories in this magazine.
1. Equipment depends on the animal and terrain. Shyer leopards in open country would require big telephoto tenses of 500mm, 600mm or 800mm. Shorter lenses of 300mm, 80-200mm or even wide-angle lenses can be used for more relaxed leopards that allow closer approach.
2. Most wildlife photography is best done early morning or late afternoon and leopards are no different. Midday light is too harsh.
3. Leopards are often in shade in low light conditions. Be aware of the resultant slower shutter speeds and ensure the camera is kept rock steady, either on a bean bag or a tripod.
4. Capturing action requires a certain amount of luck, but an understanding of what the leopard is going to do next helps. Spend time learning about the animal.
Published in Travel Africa Edition One: Autumn 1997.Text is subject to Worldwide Copyright (c)
|< Previous||Next >|
|Search The Site|