Elusive Leopard’s

Marlon duToit All Authors, Marlon 18 Comments

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?

marlon du toit, sabi sand, photo safari, south africa

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.

marlon du toit, sabi sand, photo safari, south africa

 

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.

 

marlon du toit, sabi sand, photo safari, south africa

marlon du toit, sabi sand, photo safari, south africa

 

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.

 

marlon du toit, sabi sand, photo safari, south africa

marlon du toit, sabi sand, photo safari, south africa

 

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.

 

marlon du toit, sabi sand, photo safari, south africa

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.

marlon du toit, sabi sand, photo safari, south africa

 

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.

 

marlon du toit, sabi sand, photo safari, south africa

 

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).

 

marlon du toit, sabi sand, photo safari, south africa

 

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.

 

carolinewalkley_99@hotmail.com

 

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.

 

marlon du toit, sabi sand, photo safari, south africa

 

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.

 

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marlon du toit, sabi sand, photo safari, south africa

 

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.

 

marlon du toit, sabi sand, photo safari, south africa

marlon du toit, sabi sand, photo safari, south africa

 

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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About the Author

Marlon duToit

Passion, enthusiasm and an unquenchable thirst to explore and introduce you to our natural world’s wildlife perfectly sums up my ambitions. I can’t imagine myself doing anything else. Through my African adventures I kept my photographic passion alive. Behind a camera aimed at a lion or a leopard is where I am most at home, my heart skipping a beat at the mere thought of it. My intention has never been solely for recognition but for the plight of what’s left of our natural recourses. Using my love and understanding of wildlife I am able to convey to the viewer more than an image or a fleeting moment. I aim to tell a story, to bring that moment alive to you and to capture your heart through it.

 

 

Comments 18

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  1. Nancy Anderson

    Oh Marlon , your blog was absolutely fascinating! You shared so many facts and pictures to further back them up. I really enjoyed this blog because I learned so much. Kim and I want to go on a game drive with you in Sabi Sabi in June, please. What an amazing animal. Your knowledge absolutely amazes me and leaves me with great admiration for your skills and mind.

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      Marlon duToit

      Hey Nancy, ah man, you are way too kind!! I would love nothing more than to go out with you and Kim! We will have a blast and enjoy the Sabi Sand together! The great thing is you never stop learning when it comes to these wild animals, they always end up doing things that you never expect! So exciting!!

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      Marlon duToit

      David thank you kindly, and really appreciate you taking the time to not only read through it, but also for taking the time to leave a comment!

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      Marlon duToit

      Hey Naomi! That’s great to hear! one should always appreciate any time you get with leopards because you never really know when you’ll see one again!

  2. Dee Roelofsz

    Such an interesting & informative blog about what is hands down my favourite of the big cats! Your images are truly incredible as always Marlon & they never cease to inspire me to push myself to achieve more with my own!

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      Marlon duToit

      Hey Dee,
      Thank you so much! As always it really means alot to me and I appreciate you taking the time out to read through my blogs 🙂

  3. Bethany

    Totally interesting article – loved it. I was going to ask about why the father leopard is still around by the time the cubs are born – why doesn’t he just take off? By the end of the article, though, I was getting the idea that he does so to protect the cubs from other males. Is that what’s going on? Alternatively, I’m wondering if semi-stable groups of leopards inhabit particular territorial spaces while remaining primarily loners at the same time. Just wondering why the “dad” is around close enough for the cubs to attempt interaction with him. Again, fascinating article – I love these animal behavior posts.

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      Marlon duToit

      Both adult male and female leopards are territorial. A male leopard “stakes” out a certain peace of land and will try and defend that fro other males for 3, 4 or even 5 years if he can. His territory will encompass that of per 3 to females. This leads to fairly regular encounters between the same leopards within a given area.
      Even though the male leopards recognizes his own offspring (he will kill those of another male), he plays no direct part of the life. His presence in the area is enough to deter other male leopards, and in so doing usually ensures the survival of his cubs.
      Thanks for getting in touch, hope that makes sense 🙂

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