It’s still early morning in Pretoriuskop Rest Camp. The sun is only starting to show signs of joining you on this day as the sky is tinged with a floral pink hue. Then you hear it… a rasping, sawing sound, quite close by! In fact, it sounds very similar to a hand saw cutting through a piece of wood.
A leopard is on the prowl and advertising his presence with this guttural-yet-beautiful call. This sound is often associated with Africa and its wild places, where leopards still roam free and hunt for food to get their daily nourishment.
Leopards are common in the Kruger National Park, yet relatively seldom seen. They are secretive, usually solitary cats that rely heavily on their camouflage to remain undetected by humans wanting to see them and their prey. If you are fortunate enough to see more than one leopard at a sighting, it would indicate that it’s a mother and her cubs or a male and female joined together briefly for the purposes of mating, after which, they will part ways and once again become solitary.
Another fact that adds to this mysterious cat seldom being seen is that they generally tend to be most active at night or in the early morning, while resting during the day under dense bush or lying in trees. Having said this, on our Kruger Park safaris we do have a knack of encountering them rather frequently and guests often depart Kruger Park having seen leopard on our safaris.
Panthera – a genus within the Felidae family that includes lions, tigers, jaguars, snow leopards and leopards, on the basis of specific cranial features common to these animals. They are the only felines with anatomical structures that enable them to roar, due to morphological features, especially the larynx.
Unlike cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus), which have spots, leopards have rosette-like patterns on their fur, very similar to jaguars, just smaller and more compact. They occur in a wide range in sub-Saharan Africa and certain parts of Asia and are listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List because they are threatened by habitat loss.
Black leopards, often called black panthers, are simply a colour variation caused by an autosomal recessive gene, occurring most frequently in moist forests. Black leopards are more common in Asia, than Africa, but African black leopards are sighted from time to time.
In the Kruger National Park, where prey densities are generally adequate, male leopard densities range between 2 to 4 leopards per 100km² and females between 7 to 12 leopards per 100km². The entire population of leopard in the park ranges from 9 to 16 leopards per 100km².
Interestingly sighting records indicate that the northern and north-western regions of the Kruger National Park have higher densities of leopard than the south, with the Shingwedzi region being a particularly good area to see these elusive cats.
The leopard is a member of the rather distinguished Big 5, which is made up of elephant (Loxodonta africana), lion (Panthera leo), buffalo (Syncerus caffer), rhino and, of course, the leopard. Seeing the Big 5 on an African safari is always a big expectation for visitors that come on a Kruger safari.
Traditionally a hunting term used to describe the 5 most dangerous animals to hunt on foot in the African bush, the photographic safari industry has seized on the opportunity to also profit from the marketing efforts of the hunting community, making them a must see when you come to Africa.
Leopards rank lower in hierarchy than lion and hyena (Crocuta crocuta) in the Kruger National Park, especially the females, who can be quite small and average around 60 kilograms in weight, with males weighing as much as 90 kilograms. Because of this, when they do hunt and make a kill, they will often pull their prey into trees like the Marula (Sclerocarya birrea), making it impossible or at the very least very difficult, for hyena and lion to get access to the kill.
Once in a tree, the leopard can eat at leisure and will often feast on antelope such as impala (Aepyceros melampus) for a few days. Achieving this feat of dragging a fully-grown impala into a tree demonstrates a leopard’s enormous strength. In fact, pound for pound, there is no stronger big cat in Kruger Park.
In fact, it has been documented that a leopard in Zimbabwe, stranded on an island on Lake Kariba, taught itself to hunt and eat fish to survive.
Leopards hunt by relying on their camouflage to get as close as possible to their prey. Once a favourable position has been achieved, it takes down its prey by a short, fast dash of a couple of metres and immediately positions itself around the animal’s throat, blocking off access to oxygen, suffocating its prey, which would then succumb quite quickly due to the lack of oxygen.
An alternative method is to bite the prey at the base of its skull, killing it quickly and effectively.
Unlike lions, other carnivores do feature in a leopard’s diet, and they may kill wild dogs (Lycaon pictus), cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) and lion cubs. They also tend to specialise in hunting certain kinds of animals, with baboon (Papio ursinus) being a particular specialisation in certain areas. In other areas, porcupine make up the predominant prey in their diet
Leopards, like most cats, use a variety of communication systems, which includes vocalisation, body postures and chemical communication. Females use their tails as visual cues for their cubs when walking through dense vegetation or high grass. Whilst usually silent, they will, as described in the first paragraph, also emit a rasping, hoarse cough, similar to a saw cutting through wood, when moving through their territory.
Encounters between territorial males are excessively noisy and can be very violent, sometimes fatal. Chemical communication in the form of scent-marking is used extensively and range territory boundaries are clearly marked in this way. It is likely that every leopard’s scent is unique to the individual and identifies the owner to potential mates and/or potential threats.
Tree scratching is is often accompanied by spray urination, and probably has a chemical message function. Body rubbing against trees also occurs but is likely only performing a grooming function. A leopard’s range generally excludes animals of the same kind and sex, but ranges of males and females do tend to overlap to allow them exposure to each other. A male leopards range is usually much larger than a female and, as a result, there are usually 3 to 4 females leopards resident within a males range.
If you do see a leopard in Kruger Park, you’re lucky! The best way to maximise your opportunities is to drive slowly, looking into bushes and into trees where they may be lying. They also enjoy rocky ‘koppies’ and are often seen lying on rocks on these koppies in the late afternoon.
The Kruger Park’s roads often go through dry riverbeds and present good opportunities to spot leopard as they enjoy the dense riverine vegetation associated with these river beds. Other animals like giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis) and impala indicate their potential presence by staring at a specific spot in the bush and won’t get distracted by vehicles. Impala, once the sighting has been confirmed and depending on the location of the leopard, will run away whilst alarm calling, a snort-like sound.
Vervet monkeys are also very scared of leopards and will advertise their presence by making loud noises from trees when they spot a leopard. Tree squirrels also make a noise upon seeing leopard, obviously uncomfortable with the presence of the animal.
If the kill is not too obscured, vultures will also notice and start circling, indicating the presence of a predator.
There is an olfactory (smell) sign that also indicates the presence of a leopard. If you drive through the bush on a Kruger Park safari and experience a smell very much like popcorn that has been freshly made, stop immediately, and have a good look around. It is an indication that a leopard has scent marked a bush very close to your location and is in all likelihood, still in the area.
Leopards are generally disinterested in vehicles and often allow people in cars to get very close to them. The best approach is to drive slowly towards the leopard, not alarming it by hooting or ‘revving’ your engine. Everyone in the vehicle needs to be silent and it is advisable if you get close, to roll up your windows.
Once you feel comfortable with your distance from the leopard then feel free to turn off your vehicle’s engine and relax and enjoy this very special sighting. Leopards will generally not allow vehicles too close or are perturbed by the sound of people talking in their close vicinity and will move off after a few minutes, into denser vegetation where they feel more comfortable.
Seeing a leopard lying in the fork of an old leadwood tree, is a classic Kruger Park experience, and there are few places where you are more likely to encounter these beautiful animals. Game drive routes such as Crocodile Bridge to Lower Sabie, Lower Sabie to Skukuza and onward from Skukuza to Satara Rest Camps all provide excellent opportunities to spot leopards. Be sure to visit the Kruger National Park, use the guides we provide, and enjoy your unforgettable African safari.
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