Londolozi is synonymous with leopards. Since the early 70’s, these magnificent cats have been drawing guests to our camps from all over the globe to view and photograph them in their natural habitat. Although this is certainly one of the best places in the world to view them, they are found all over Africa, from desert to mountain top, occupying as wide a range of niches as one can imagine.
Historically misunderstood, we thought we’d give you a quick lowdown on what to expect, should you be so lucky to see one the next time you visit.
1. They Epitomize Africa
While the lion may steal the show as the picture of regal magnificence, the leopard, I feel, is more the quintessential cat of what was always seen as the Dark Continent.
Africa still has a wonderful air of mystery about it, for visitors and locals alike. Part of its charm – and indeed the charm of safari – is the unknown, the feeling of adventure and the thrill of setting forth into the wilderness. Whilst the experience itself has evolved from the antiquated ox-wagon, hunt-for-the-pot, three-month expeditions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the thrill is still there. Seeing African wildlife in its natural setting is like a pilgrimage for many, and while the Big 5 may be the drawcard for many reserves, leopards will always be the one of the group that is out on the fringes of “maybe”. Never is a sighting of one guaranteed, and the allure of this spotted cat is representative of the allure of the whole continent.
2. They’re Elusive
I mean really elusive! As in if they don’t want to be seen, you Will. Not. See. Them.
We are of course incredibly privileged to be able to view leopards like we do here, at Londolozi, but that is a direct result of a long history of combined factors; no hunting and respectful and sensitive viewing being the main ones. The less human presence impacts a leopard population, the more likely one is to see them. In areas like Londolozi where this has been the case for many years, some incredible leopard viewing is possible, but one doesn’t have to go too far to get into areas in which a leopard sighting comes along once in a blue moon. I had a friend visit me here a few years ago, and he worked on a reserve that is only about 80km from Londolozi, which in leopard terms is nothing. Yet he said he saw a leopard maybe once every 6 months there. The fact that on one morning of his visit we had the Tu-Tones male walk right past our car left him absolutely speechless.
Don’t get me wrong though, a fleeting glimpse of an unrelaxed leopard can be just as exciting. Way up in the north of the Kruger National Park, we were driving through a beautiful cluster of huge boulders, miles from any public road, and the common thought was, “imagine seeing a leopard up on those rocks.” Not 30 seconds later, someone shouted out “Leopard!” and snapping our heads round, we saw a young individual lying on top of a massive rock, flattened low in an attempt to avoid detection. As soon as we stopped the vehicle and it realised it had been seen, it disappeared down the back of the boulder in a blur of gold and spots. A 15 second sighting at the most, if that, but incredible nonetheless.
That is what leopard viewing is like in 90% of Africa. A long history of human persecution has ingrained into the species a natural fear of man, and it is only in safe havens like Londolozi and similar reserves that one can see them relaxed and behaving as naturally as if no one was there watching them.
On the subject of elusiveness, the so-called relaxed leopards we see here can also be frustrating animals to track down. They don’t keep timetables, they don’t always sit still for photographs and spend most of their time moving through dense vegetation, spending only a minimal amount of time on or near roads.
The photographs you see on our website or social media feeds don’t always show the painstaking hours of tracking, following up on distant alarm calls or frustrating times of not finding them. They are here, we just sometimes have to work hard to enjoy the privilege of an incredible sighting! Patience required.
3. Their Beauty Truly Is Breathtaking
Nothing can prepare you for your first sight of a wild leopard. For a while you sit gobsmacked, unable to comprehend that a creature as beautiful as this actually exists. Seeing the way its muscles supply ripple under it skin as it pads with feline grace down a game path, its rosette-covered coat making it disappear the moment it stands still in a thicket is almost surreal.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve viewed a leopard during my years at Londolozi, but each and every sighting leaves me with a similar feeling of awe. There’s almost a sense of guilt that accompanies a viewing, brought on by the realisation that this animal is so incredibly well adapted to its environment, yet we as humans have become so far removed from ours. It almost feels like cheating, as we and the leopards aren’t meeting on equal terms. We are very much on the outside, looking in. That in itself is an unbelievable privilege.
4. They’re Not Always in Trees
Leopards are often depicted by photographs and media as spending a large portion of their time in trees, a slightly inaccurate representation. Tree-climbing does form an essential part of their lifestyle in places where rival predators abound, and they need to hoist kills or escape threats like lions, but in reality, by far the majority of their time is spent terrestrially.
Photographically, a leopard in a tree can’t really be beaten, which is why the pictures of them in glossy magazines regularly have them gazing out over the sweeping African savannah from the boughs of an imposing Jackalberry tree, but most of the time they’ll be down on the ground.
5. They’re Addictive
Once you’ve seen one, you’re hooked. A little adrenalin spike mixed with a solid dose of endorphins is going to be your body’s reaction to laying eyes one of these magnificent creatures. At least it should be. And like a BASE jumper, downhill skier or surfer, that rush, however subtle or understated, is something you will want to seek out again, whether you like it or not. There is simply no way to get bored of seeing or spending time with a leopard.
I have been fortunate enough to live and work in an environment in which leopards roam freely, for over 7 years, and I still feel like it’s my first day here. On foot a week ago with tracker Milton Khosa, we spotted the Tamboti female and her cub less than 20 metres from us, crouched low in a thicket, hiding. Immediately backing away and out of sight, I was thrilled not only at having seen the leopards from so close, but at seeing how thrilled Milton was too. This is a man who has tracked and found many hundreds of cats over his years out here, yet each successful track is just as thrilling as his first
Whether it’s your first time or your hundredth, seeing a leopard should always be a thrill. And if it isn’t, you may have lost touch with the real reason you should be out in the bush in the first place. The best lodges, safari operators and guides all stress the importance of the experience first. Even if you’ve brought your brand new camera set-up all the way out to Africa to capture award winning photographs of leopards in their native environment, that shouldn’t be your priority. If the lighting is perfect and all the elements are aligned for that once-in-a-lifetime shot, by all means take the picture, but always remember to take a moment just to look. To see. Ultimately just to be there, present with one of Africa’s – and the world’s – most beautiful and iconic animals.