On the Lookout for Leopards
On a recent afternoon game drive, we were treated to a very special sighting of not one, but two of the most elusive of the Big Five. It was a very warm afternoon, and while we sat watching a large herbivore rolling around in a mud wallow, I heard alarm calls from a troop of Vervet Monkeys further north along the river. I explained to our guests that the reason for these calls is often to warn of a large predator’s presence. So we left the sighting and moved off in anticipation towards the alarm calls. We carefully scanned the brush and cover along the river bank for any signs of activity, having no luck until we reached the agitated troop of monkeys.
We sat alongside them scanning the trees to figure out in which direction they were focused. We figured out that they were looking across the river, along its eastern bank, towards a thicket with several large Camel Thorn trees reaching through it. I reversed the vehicle to allow us a better view of the eastern bank and started scanning with my binoculars. Then I picked out a pale yellow shape half way up a Camel Thorn tree. We had found a leopard! I made several attempts to reposition the vehicle so everyone had a view, but we couldn’t see much more than half of the leopard, and from quite a distance away, too.
I made the decision to try for a clearer and closer vantage by driving back to the nearest river crossing over to the eastern bank. We made our way around as slowly and quietly as possible, knowing that at any moment the leopard could climb down and disappear if it felt any pressure. As we came closer to the thicket, we had communications from another field guide who had come into the area to join in the sighting. He kept watch from the western river bank while we made our approach, and reported that he had seen movement higher up in the tree, too. A short while later, we confirmed that there were actually two leopards in the tree!
As we got closer, edging around a bend in the road, the whole tree came into sight with our leopard stretched out across one of its large horizontal branches, looking at us calmly, almost curiously. After we had positioned the vehicle for a good view, we took a moment to scan the tree above him. We immediately picked out the slender silhouette of another leopard, much smaller than the one below – a leopardess.
We sat and enjoyed the sighting for some time in the glow of the sun slipping down towards the horizon. As the day faded and the temperature started to drop, we noticed some activity from the leopard higher up in the tree. She stretched for a moment, slunk down from her position to stop alongside the male for a quick greeting, before hopping down into cover and disappearing into the thicket. The male stayed for some time after she left, eventually climbing down to follow her into cover.
Over the next couple of days, both leopards were seen in the same area – once together again, and each was also seen separately on two occasions. The photo of the male was taken in the last light of the day when he gave us a beautiful sighting by crossing the road in the open close to our vehicle. The photo of the female in a Camel Thorn tree was taken close to where we first saw them together.
Words by: Matt Roberts
Photos by: Darryn Murray