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.

1They 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.

A young female leopard scans her surroundings from a perch. Sightings like this are less common than one would think, and represent more of a highlights package than anything else. 

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.

Spending much of their time in the thickets, in which they can find enough cover to hunt effectively, leopards can be difficult to find.

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.

Can you find her? The Ximpalapala female was a leopard who lived in the north-west of Londolozi. Skittish at the best of times, it was a real challenge trying to get a photograph of her, as she was forever slinking back into thickets, loath to show herself to vehicles. Most leopards across Africa exhibit this type of behaviour; how many do you think you might have driven past on previous visits to the bush?

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 Mashaba female peers down from the canopy of a Tamboti tree. One would think that a gold coat with black patterns would stand out in a green environment (summer time), but leopards will simply melt away into any vegetation they happen to be near or in.

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.

The soft, warm glow of evening paints leopards in the most magical light.

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.

The Tutlwa female; a leopard seen in trees more than most. Here she lies near her hoisted impala kill, with the roofs of Varty Camp just visible across the Sand River in the background. Sadly she disappeared in Winter 2016, we presume killed by the Tsalala Pride.

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.

A far more likely view of a leopard; the cat moving on the ground, hunting and patrolling territory. Here the Tamboti female walks down the road for a short distance while Amy Attenborough, Elmon Mhlongo and their guests follow at a respectful distance.

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.

 

 

About the Author

James Tyrrell

Photographic Guide/Media Team

James had hardly touched a camera when he came to Londolozi, but his writing skills were well developed, and he was quickly snapped up by the Londolozi blog team as a result. An environment rich in photographers helped him develop the photographic skills ...

View James's profile

36 Comments

on 5 Things You Need to Know About Leopards Before Coming on Safari

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Marinda Drake

I am fortunate to have seen many leopards so far in my life. From fleeting glimpses lasting a few seconds to having a leopard all to ourselves for 45 minutes and the only thing making us move on was breakfast calling. We saw a leopard kill a warthog. All this in Kruger where we see more leopards than lions. Nothing beat the experience that we have at Londolozi though. It is so special. From the cubs to the kill that we have seen. Leopards are the most beautiful of the big cats. They stay my favourite and thr most exiting.

James Tyrrell

Hi Marinda,
Have you and Des kept a record of how many you’ve seen by now? I’m sure it’s plenty!

Marinda Drake

Hi James. Don’t keep a record but even being “middle age” now we still remember exactly where we have seen a leopard and even what it did. It is probably because they are so special that we remember it better.

Darlene Knott

Leopards have been my favorite animal since my first Safari in 2009. We were st Little Mombo and watched the renowned Legadema (Eye of the Leopard fame) grace a tree with her presence, run with her cub from the baboons, etc. I fell in love and have not stopped. I admire and enjoy many animals in Africa and can sit and watch most for hours, but none get my heart thumping like the leopard—the strength, the beautiful fur, the long whiskers, those eyes! You watch one jump straight up into a tree as he or she carries a large kill, you watch one jump from one limb to another, wow! Nothing like it. And the cubs, oh my, I want to bring them home with me! 😂

James Tyrrell

Hi Darlene,
I’m very jealous that you got to see the famous Legadma! What a treat. There certainly is nothing spending time with one in the wild!

Marinda Drake

Hi Darelene. You are so fortunate to have seen Legadema. It is definitely a once in a lifetime experience.

Gillian Evans

James you are so right! Viewing leopards is addictive! From my first sighting of a leopard on a kill in a tree in the Masai Mara I was totally and emotionality smitten! More recently at Londolozi viewing relaxed leopards in their environment – hunting, mating, observing, fighting, falling out of trees – and with cubs – the interaction has been phenomenal and never fails to get the adrenaline going! I’ve been accused of being obsessed by leopards .. but that’s no bad thing!

Callum Evans

Superb post!! I can safetly say that ever since I was my first leopard when I was 14 in Kruger 2010 I was hooked!! I’ve only seen 3 leopards since then, a distant female on the iMfolozi Wilderness Trail, a close-encounter with a Cape leopard in Harold Porter Gardens in December last year and most recently a very relaxed male lying behind the showers in our campsite in Mabuasehube Game Reserve at night (29th December)! While an incredible set of experiences, I have yet to have a leopard sighting in the day where I spend time with it and photograph it. Still chasing the dream!

James Tyrrell

Jeepers, the encounter at Harold Porter must have been quite something! I long for the day when I get to see my first Cape Leopard!

Callum Evans

It shocked me too!! A friend of mine who’s a bird guide had seen it about 30 minutes before me on the ridge above the gardens so I spent 20 minutes trying to spot it from a bridge with no luck. So I walked back through the forest half expecting to bump into it and then I heard a rustling on the path ahead of me and the leopard just jumped up 7 metres ahead of me and raced back up the cliff. I got a full view though, he was absolutely magnificent. I thought I’d have to wait years to see a Cape leopard!!

Callum Evans

And I’m sorry, if you’ve lost track of the number of leopard sightings that you’ve had, then Londolozi must be absolute heaven-on-earth!!!!

James Tyrrell

Haha, it is! Hope I didn’t come across as sounding jaded there..

Ian Hall

It’s very simple, Londolozi is one of the great hotspots (no pun intended) for spotting leopards.

Sid Toama

Hit the nail on the head and especially point Number 5.

Vin Beni

James–you captured this brilliantly–totally expressing my sentiments and experiences.
We were so fortunate to experience a leopard sighting within the first hour of our first safari. I still remember exactly how I felt at that moment–a mesmerizing experience. I also felt so insignificant.

James Tyrrell

Hi Vin,
Thanks for the comments.
“Insignificance” is a good way to put it!

Laura Eberly

Beautifully written, thank you. I would add that for most of us the time spent in the African bush is truly a healing, rejuvenating experience that reminds us we are merely a small part of a much greater world.

James Tyrrell

Hi Laura,
I couldn’t agree more!

Denise Vouri

Ahh, leopards- the magical, mystical cats of Africa. I’ll never forget my first sighting, so enthralled that I barely took a photo. Just watching was enough. Last year on my trip to Sabi Sand and then Botswana, I was fortunate enough to have a few sightings, a couple spectacular ones and then the proverbial “hiding in the thicket”, barely a head peaking out as if to say, “no Photo op here!” Thanks for the article.

James Tyrrell

Hi Denise,
You’re welcome! Yip, if there’s no photo op, camera down, just enjoy!

Joanne Wadsworth

This page should be splattered with positive comments about your article! Leopards are my very favorite and just seeing a image sends me into a place of total awe. What a story you have woven…what sensible advice. My thanks, James.

James Tyrrell

Hi Joanne, Thanks for the kind words!
They are truly special animals!

Christa Blessing

Leopards are the most wonderful creatures in the world for me. And I will never get enough of them. They are just beauty in perfection, as well as elegance and their cubs are the cutest little guys imaginable! Okay, lion cubs are as cute.

Christa Blessing

And, sorry, I have forgotten to mention it: the pictures and videos you post of leopards are just soooo amazing. I love them!

James Tyrrell

Thanks Christa!
(And yes, lion cubs are also pretty cute!!)

Carol Sturgeon

I love reading your thoughts and the way you make everything so amazingly well written and expressed! Thank you for sharing this about your fascinating leopards! One would think sometimes from the blogs that’s it is a usual outing of tracking and seeing these magnificent beautiful cats! This puts out the reality anyone who is fortunate to see one has been truly blessed!

James Tyrrell

Hi Carol,
Thanks for your kind words!
Indeed, sometimes we don’t find them, which just makes it that much more special when we do…!

Carol Sturgeon

James, I have a question – how difficult is it when you have become “close” to all these amazing animals to not want to help them when you know they are in trouble? Like the lion cubs, and leopard cubs when threatened by the males, the older or hurt animals where human intervention may be able to save them???? I would think that would be the hardest! I know you let nature take its course, but I would think it would be extremely difficult sometimes!!!

James Tyrrell

Hi Carol,

A good question.
I think the longer you are out here, the more invested in an animal’s survival you become, but at the same time you become more accepting of the fact that things are out of your control.
It’s certainly hard seeing an animal suffer, so I guess ultimately one just wishes the end would come quickly rather than wishing you could intervene yourself…

Mary Beth Wheeler

They are indeed addictive! I vividly remember my first sighting of a leopard in the wild – the Nyeleti female, up high in a marula tree, her three cubs below. It was 2010 and I’ll be back soon for the fifth time to see these stunning creatures again! Yup, I’m hooked!

James Tyrrell

Hi Mary Beth,
Sadly I never got to see the Nyelethi female – I arrived at Londolozi just around the time she disappeared. But happily I’ve spent many hours with the Nanga female, who as I’m sure you know is one of those three cubs!
What are the dates of your next visit!?

Mary Beth Wheeler

We arrive June 30 for 10 nights at Founders Camp. So looking forward to new adventures in the bush!

Al Kaiser

I really enjoyed this story James. People suggest that I am addicted to the leopards. I prefer to call it a love affair!

Jenifer Collins

James, beautiful blog and so true! And, the photo of Amy and guests is with Freddy, as Jeff and I were sitting right behind! An exciting find as the Tamboti had cubs that we were desperately trying to find – and did as she eventually took us to them! Can’t wait to catch up on all the action in April!

John McCabe

Just fantastic!!!

Michael & Terri Klauber

James, This reminded us of the time with you and we sat next to those newborn leopard cubs hidden in a thicket and could really only listen to them! Wonder which ones those were?

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