The Invisible Leopard

The Invisible Leopard — A search on safari

The irregular markings of Obi the leopards rosettes help him blend in to dappled shade.

More often than not, while guiding a safari, I receive an answer to a standard question I ask (are there any specific species that you want to try and see) that fills me with both trepidation and excitement. That answer, is my favourite animal, the leopard. The excitement comes from me wanting to see leopard just as much as, if not more than my guests, as I think they are such majestic, clever and beautiful animals that embody the true wildness I feel while out on safari. The dread comes from knowing they are probably the most difficult of the ‘usual suspects’ to find in the jungles and savannahs of Africa.

Their magnificent coats, beautifully disrupted with black rosettes on top of their tawny, tan undercoat have the most remarkable ability to blend in to almost any background on the savannah. Couple this natural and portable camouflage with an elusive demeanour and penchant for solitude and you have an animal that is very hard to find. They exist because of their stealth. If you were to rank the large carnivores of Africa against each other in a hierarchy, the leopard is almost at the bottom, only able to overpower the lithe but fast Cheetah. Lions, Hyenas & Wild dogs will all steal a leopard’s kill and even dispatch them if they can catch them. So being able to hide from other predators is important. They are ambush hunters only able to sustain a fast sprint for a short distance, so they have to stalk their prey and get very close if they are to have any chance of succeeding. All this would lead you to believe they have it very tough in the wild and are probably not very successful. But because they are so stealthy, so clever and most importantly so adaptable, they are actually the most successful big cat in Africa and the most widespread big cat in the world.

So, strangely the most common big cat with the most beautiful looks — that is no doubt the most sought after — is also the hardest to find. Sounds like a headache for a safari guide, right? I have been lucky enough to spend hundreds of hours with leopards in Tanzania, Botswana, Kenya & South Africa, and many hundreds more tracking and trying to find them. Through all this experience and my affinity (obsession is perhaps too strong a word!) for leopards, I have come to be really quite good at finding them — or knowing how to find them. So much so that I even gained the nickname ‘Bwana Chui’ (the Swahili translation for Mr Leopard) in Tanzania. But with all this time spent with my favourite animal, I am still fascinated and surprised by them on a regular basis. I once visited a tree the morning after seeing a leopard in it the previous evening, having looked in the tree and seen that it had gone, to try and pick up its tracks and see where it had gone. Upon getting out of the vehicle and walking under the tree, I quickly realised I had not checked the tree properly and the leopard had been well camouflaged and asleep on a branch. It literally fell out of the tree with a crash of snapping branches growling and snarling as it landed on the ground about 5 metres away from me and my failing heart! I really must double check trees that I know to have recently had leopards in before I walk underneath them, I said to myself once my adrenaline levels had dropped back down from Kilimanjaro levels.

The time I have been most in awe of these amazing creatures, and the reason for the title of ‘The Invisible Leopard’ for this tale, came while I was guiding some great friends of mine, Helen, Wally, Kyra & Catherine in Tanzania. Soon after picking them up from the airstrip I asked the question I both look forward to and dread. We had all already completely hit it off, so I felt comfortable asking if there was anything specific that they wanted to try for. Helen replied that she had been to Africa a couple of times before but always missed out on seeing a leopard. The game was on!

There are no guarantees in the bush while you are on a safari. But as a guide you can concentrate on certain areas / times of day / specific techniques that you think will give you a great chance of seeing a particular sought-after species. An example, if leopards are on the wish list, is to head out to a ridge in the cool, pre-dawn air and instead of just driving around, switch off the vehicle and listen to the sounds coming from the valleys below. As leopards return from their nocturnal forays, they often catch the eye of the early morning risers such as vervet monkeys and some of the many game bird species in Africa. These prey species are very quick to sound the alarm, and narrow down the search area. Once you have this vocal focus point, it becomes a lot easier to track, predict and spot the spotty cat, often wandering through the thicker riverine vegetation.

But this is not what put us onto our elusive quarry this time. Having searched already for a couple of days, we were checking trees in an under-utilised area of the reserve when something reddish caught our eye. It didn’t look right and on closer inspection it turned out to be an impala carcass, fresh, that had been taken up an Acacia tree. There is only one animal that could have done this, a leopard. We quickly backed away to a decent distance where we could watch the tree and the carcass but where we were far enough back that the leopard would, hopefully, feel safe enough to return to its kill. We settled down to wait, all staring intently at the fork in the tree with the impala wedged in it. It looked like it might be a long wait, but we were all so focussed on this great chance of seeing a leopard that no one gaze was going to waiver, 10 eyes all with one goal, to be the first one to spot it. After about 30 minutes, my mind was playing tricks of me. Over-utilisation of my brain and wishing, waiting for our elusive friend. I had to second guess myself, was the impala still there? It looked redder on the tree earlier when we had initially spotted it from a similar distance. I turned to ask my friends ‘Can you guys still see the impala?’ Actually, no! was the unified response. Anticipation and hope quickly turned to confusion and consternation. I had been staring, right at it, the whole time! How had I missed something happening? Had the impala fallen out of the tree on its own accord? Had the leopard returned for its lunch (it was late morning by now), swished its tail at us and disappeared without any of us spotting it? Am I the worst safari guide ever?! I mean, at least if you’re not going to see a leopard, don’t dangle the prospect of one tantalisingly close to your guests…

I released the brakes and we drifted, almost silently down the hill towards the tree. Every inch closer we got, the higher my stress levels went as I could now see there was no impala in the tree. My mind was not playing tricks on me. I had missed it. We had missed it! With a very quick scan around the base of the tree, we found the carcass again now, having been dragged into a small bush and fed on again. This leopard was literally feeding on the carcass just in front of us at the base of the tree we were staring at and we never knew. Never even had an inkling. There were scratch marks on the tree which showed us what had happened. It had returned to the tree, slinking undetected through the waist high grass, scaled the far side of the tree using it as cover from us and, with what we could only imagine was a lightning quick manoeuvre, hooked a claw into the impala and pulled it back down the far side of the tree and under the bush. At least now there was a certain sense of awe, coolness and respect for the stealth and intelligence we had just witnessed — though not quite witnessed, from the leopard, mixed in the with crushing disappointment of being so close yet so far to finding our number one target as we drove back to the lodge.

Spot the leopard. A great example of how they can elude even the sharpest of eyes.

We needed a plan, so we came up with two options, either head out to the more usual areas that I found leopards and try to find a different one, or go back to the tree with plenty of G & Ts, a bottle of wine and some freshly cooked snacks and sit it out as the temperature dropped and the sun started to set. Drinks, snacks and the added attraction of sitting near an impala carcass very easily won out so we headed back. This time eyes really wide open. As we got to the vicinity of the tree, we slowed down and switched off the engine, just trying to roll as quietly as possible into place. Eagle-eyed Catherine and Kyra on the backseat beat me to it and whispered those incredible words ‘Leopard! There! In that tree..’ In the adjacent tree to ‘impala-gate’ was a stunning and curious leopard cub. As he watched our approach, I felt a huge sense of relief as a wave of excitement and joy washed over me, extended from the four amazing accomplices behind me (ironically, you don’t always get nature lovers on safari, so guiding people who love the wild and take note of what is going on as much as I do makes it even more special). We had achieved our goal. This was quite obviously not the leopard that had carried the impala carcass into the tree in the first place, so the obvious conclusion was a mother and cub. Though we could only see the cub. He ate some more (the carcass had been put up into the new tree) and lounged between the branches as the sun slipped slowly behind him into the Great Rift Valley. At dusk, he descended the tree to come and investigate us, drinks in hand, having spent the most wonderful evening with this obliging leopard. There is an unwritten rule between guides in Africa that the first person to see a leopard gets to name it. He had never been seen before and so Catherine & Kyra got to name him. They went with Obi (short for Obi-wan Kenobi) as he was the young padawan of a clearly exceptional Jedi of a leopard, his mother. We never saw her at all throughout this entire day, though I am 100% sure she kept a close eye on us, firstly while we were watching her kill, and then an even closer eye while we were observing her cub.

The invisible leopard, mother of Obi, shows just how frustrating and rewarding looking for a leopard is. To everyone that has been on safari and spent time with a leopard, you will realise just how special they are. To everyone that has not had that pleasure yet, whether you’ve been on safari and missed a leopard or you are yet to go on safari, I envy you. You have that incredible moment of when you first lay eyes on the dappled coat, long tail and burning eyes still to come, and it will stay with you forever.

The eyes that look into your soul and fix you in the fraction of a second that lasts a lifetime.

You can learn more about the safaris I lead and design and read more of my safari stories at www.jungleandsavannah.com

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