Leopard’s have to rank in the top 3 of what people want to see most when on an African safari.
At the end of their safari, leopard’s are often one of the only animals they did NOT get to see!
Why is that?
Leopards by nature are incredible shy, always elusive and extremely difficult to actually spot.
Let’s have a chat about why exactly they are so difficult to find…
Leopards are extremely solitary by nature. Unlike lions, they despise the company of other leopards and will go out of their way to avoid one another. Any chance meetings with another leopard is usually a rather tense one, but one that will most likely end in both cats departing in opposite directions (there are some exception which we will look at a little later).
The only members of the cat family that tend to be social are lions, and male cheetah’s. Other than lion and cheetah, just about every other species of feline live alone and shy away from the company of others.
The only exception is usually when a mother has cubs, and when they join up for reproductive purposes.
There are many benefits to living a solitary lifestyle.
Due to their small size and incredible camouflage, leopards can stay undetected for the bulk of their lifetime. If possible they choose to inhabit dense habitat with plenty of cover to keep them concealed. Their mottled coat is nearly undetectable within the undergrowth, perfectly suiting the leopard’s secretive habits.
That said, leopard’s are likely the most adaptable of cats, especially amongst the larger species. They can be found within virtually every kind of habitat. This does not necessarily make them easier to find, as they will change their habits to suit the environment their find themselves within.
Moving around without being detected is also easier for a leopard than say, a pride of ten lions. Lions can depend on numbers in order to hunt down prey, making use of strategy and teamwork to bring down large, powerful prey.
Leopard on the other hand will make use of their fantastic camouflage, enduring patience and skillfulness to hunt prey closer to their own body weight. They will kill quickly, and kill silently. They do so in order to not draw attention to themselves, and in an attempt to keep the location of their kill to themselves.
Animals will often call frantically when caught by lion, wild dog or hyena, but leopards have this canny ability to silence prey within seconds, if not immediately.
Being a solitary predator also means you need not share your meal with other members. A large meal such as an adult impala or warthog will last a leopard 3 to 4 days. Typically a leopard needs to kill once a week, maybe once every 5 days in order to satisfy its needs. Large prides of lions need to do so atleast every 3 to 4 nights, especially when cubs are around.
So when will you see more than one leopard?
By far the bulk of such sighting will be mother leopards and their cubs.
Cubs will spend up to 16 months with their mother, and by the time of their independence females will be the same size as their mother, and male cubs far larger. Male leopard will eventually weigh up to 70% more than an average sized female.
The bond between a mother and her cubs will be strong, and she will defend them with her life should danger confront them.
Whilst based in the Sabi Sand as a full-time ranger/guide, I was fortunate enough to see 4 leopard walking together for nearly 4 months. It was a mother and her 2 new cubs, joined by a male cub from her previous litter. The male cub was over 2 years of age and by all means and purposes should have been independent.
Her instinct to provide for him was just too strong as she would often kill successfully and then call out to him. He would happily respond and claim his meal. She would often react very aggressively towards him, yet she would still call to him time and time again. She was a fantastic mother and spent all her energy in caring for her cubs.
The older male did not spend much time interacting with his younger siblings. He never harmed them in any way, but when they approached him he would seem rather awkward, not quite sure of how to treat the little spotted fur balls (see image below). He would however react aggressively towards them whenever he was feeding, and would not allow them to feed alongside him (see image above).
This is an extreme example and one that does not often occur.
Interactions between the cubs and their father will often be laced with tension and at times, outward aggression. Male leopards are fierce by nature and are not prone to social interactions. This goes for both the cub and their mother. Female leopards feel the same way and will avoid the father wherever possible. Young cubs on the other hand will attempt to interact with their father, but the response is usually the same.
The images below was captured when a male cub tried to play with his father’s tail. As you can see, his dad was less than amused.
A male leopard will often scavenge from kills made by the females within his territory. This is a small price to pay for the females as they are protected by the dominant male, allowing few rogue males the opportunity to get to their cubs, something that almost always has a sad ending for the cubs.
Another undeniable meeting for leopards is when they have to reproduce.
If ever you have been privileged enough to spend time with mating leopards, you will understand they they absolutely despise one another’s company. This is made evident by the growling, spitting, biting and slapping.
There’s no pleasure, just pure business.
The courting and mating process could take as long as 5 days. During this period the couple will stay together all day and night, and at times mate as often as every 5 – 7 minutes. This ensures that success is achieved, likely so as to not do it again.
Aggression is high as neither party is used to such prolonged company. Leopards never really physically interact with any other creature (only really mothers and cubs), so image the trauma they undergo whilst courting and mating!
I have however observed less friction between leopards who have “known” one another for a longer time. When they get together to mate it is far less aggressive and tense.
At times, it is possible that more than one male would be attracted to a female during her estrous period. Sighting of two or 3 males in one place has been observed. These meeting are always filled with tension and aggression, with the dominant territorial male almost always ending on top.
Physical fights between leopards are rare. It is easy for either individual to be seriously wounded, something that could be avoided by threat displays and sheer intimidation.
There’s no doubt that these cats are likely one of the most striking and beautiful creatures to walk the earth.
I have spent countless hours in their company and can assuredly say that I will never tire of them.
For those who have had the privilege of sighting a leopard, it is a huge honour. It may have been a fleeting glimpse after dark with the spotlight, or perhaps an incredible encounter with one that has grown accustomed to the presence of vehicles.
Spending hours following their tracks, or listening to the monkeys alarming close by assures you of their presence. You know that they are there. You know that they are watching you yet they evade you with no effort at all. After many hours of searching, even a glimpse of its tail vanishing within a thicket is enough. The thought of knowing you came so close to Africa’s most elusive large predator is enough to set your mind at ease.
Each and every encounter is special, each and every encounter should be remembered.
Times shared in the presence of a leopard will never be forgotten
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