Leopards are one of Africa’s most shy, elusive cats. They epitomise sleek camouflage and whilst watching them move, you realise how it is that they can slip away like ghosts, whether it be in rain forests of the Congo, savannas of East Africa or in the true deserts of Namibia.
Being so furtive and adaptable, they are the one animal that can move through urban areas unnoticed and for many years, very little was known about their secret lives. In my youth and my early guiding years I was privileged enough to have ‘seen’ leopards but often these were mere glimpses, a flash of a tail here or a mirage of spots deep in the thickets there. At times you were unsure if it really was a leopard you were seeing, or if your eyes were beginning to play tricks on you and the leopard had long since disappeared. Working in the Greater Kruger National Park and on Londolozi, where this human leopard trust relationship has been building for many decades, I can now say they I have been privileged enough to ‘watch’ leopards. Because these animals have become habituated to our vehicles, our presence has absolutely no effect on their behavior and we are able to watch them act as they would even if we were not there. To put it into perspective, I recently drove a South African guest in his mid forties, who had visited the bush his whole life. Whilst watching one of the leopards he became totally overwhelmed and in fact quite tearful because even though he had seen leopards in the past, this was his first time truly ‘seeing’ a leopard. Below is a selection of my photographs taken over the last couple months that show the extent to which I have been allowed into their lives. When you consider the fact that a leopard makes the choice as to whether you get to see it or not, you begin to realise just how lucky we really are.
The short tailed male shows his displeasure at the Tamboti young female cowering in the branches above him. Using his size to bully her, he stole the remains of her kill and trapped her in the tree, while he finished it off.
This male is not quite as relaxed around vehicles as other leopards on Londolozi. It is a very strange and intimidating feeling to have one of these animals stare you down like this when you’re used to them looking straight through you.
The Tamboti young female drags an impala lamb away from the open areas where she is exposed to bigger predators who may attempt to steal her carcass, towards a thicket where she can stash the meal. The alarm calls produced by the lamb’s mother and the rest of the herd is what helped us to find this amazing sight.
The Mashaba young female rests in the empty branches of this Marula tree. Due to the intense hailstorm we had a few weeks ago, this tree is still bare whereas elsewhere on Londolozi the Marulas are all flushing lush, bright green.
An amazing scene to witness the Piva male and the Tamboti female mating out in the open. It was in fact here on Londolozi that the first film footage of leopards mating was ever captured.
The Gowrie male and Tutlwa female mating. It’s been extraordinary to see these leopards mating out in the open and I have now had two of my very best leopard mating sightings in the space of one week.
The Gowrie male pins the Tutlwa female down before leaping off of her to prevent her from swatting him before he can leap off of her.
The Piva male not showing as much experience as the Gowrie male and therefore getting a good swat from the Tamboti female before he can leap off of her. What was even more incredible was seeing the Dudley River Bank young female watch this courtship from the sidelines. At one point she even approached the pair and attempted to flirt with the Piva male who was not at all interested.
The Piva male beginning to learn from his mistakes and getting away much quicker this time.
The Mashaba female rests languidly atop a termite mound, using this as a lookout spot and allowing us an incredible photo opportunity.
The Tutlwa female drinks from the Sand River. In this sighting, she actually approached our vehicle and drank right next to us, allowing us to watch exactly how the leopard laps up water.
After spending a lot of time with leopards, watching their tail can start to tell you so much of what they are thinking. Often as they watch game, their tail lifts and they twitch it from side to side, reminding me of someone who pokes their tongue out when concentrating.
The Mashaba female attempts to sneak up on a herd of impala. Leopards are incredibly clever animals and we find that sometimes they will actually move when we start our engines, thereby using the sounds of our vehicles to mask themselves.
The Mashaba female strolls past us at eye level, apparently oblivious to our presence.
Despite their remarkable adaptability, “leopards have vanished from 40% of their historic range in Africa, and from over 50% of their historic range in Asia. Leopards are now extinct in 6 countries they formerly occupied, and their presence in 6 additional countries is very uncertain” (Pathera website). They are under threat from habitat destruction, badly managed trophy hunting and the desire for their skins by local tribes throughout Africa. All reasons why we have to continue fighting for conservation areas such as Londolozi, the Greater Kruger National Park and Limpopo Transfrontier Parks and other such wilderness areas like them around the world where the leopard is revered and sanctified and where we can continue to learn from these majestic animals.
Photographed and Written by: Amy Attenborough