Elusive and solitary, the leopard is renowned for its magnificent coat of camouflage. Even when guests on safari are in an African leopard’s known habitat, they are often incredibly hard to spot. The trackers and rangers on Thanda Safari are often asked by guests to try to find a leopard, but of all the members of the Big Five, this is the most difficult to spot. During the day this magnificent big cat lounges in the bushes or on the branches of trees. You can be looking right at one and not see it. During the night drive the trackers look for eyes reflecting in the dark as leopards use the cover of darkness for hunting and moving about.
The males and females are both solitary animals and they only come together for mating when they are more visible and audible as they make a distinctive, rasping growling sound and they are so preoccupied with one another they tend to ignore the game drive vehicle.
The term “regal” befits the leopard and the Zulu name for leopard is ‘ingwe’ meaning ‘pure sovereignty’. Through the ages the Zulu King has worn a leopard skin around his neck as a sign of his royal status. Certain other senior-ranking members are also entitled to wear a leopard skin at traditional ceremonies. Organisations such as Panthera and Fur for Life have played an important conservation role in distributing lifelike mock leopard fur capes for this purpose.
SOME FACTS ABOUT THE AFRICAN LEOPARD
The adult female African leopard in the Thanda Safari area weighs up to 45 kilograms and males 60 to 90 kilograms. A fascinating African leopard fact is that both male and female are able to bring down game that is up to three times their body weight and, even more remarkably, to hoist it up a tree. Kilogram for kilogram, they are Africa’s strongest cats.
In the wild they live for 9–14 years of age, the males have a shorter lifespan than the females. The gestation period for females is an average of 100 days. They have two to three cubs at a time, weighing about 500 grams at birth, and they hide the new-born cubs in thick bush or dens until they are three months old. Leopard mothers stay with their cubs until they are about eighteen months old when they are old enough to hunt and take care of themselves.
The African leopard will prey on any animal that comes across its path, such as impala and other antelope, warthogs, baboons, rodents, monkeys, snakes, large birds, amphibians, fish and porcupines.
Leopards don’t need much water. They survive from the moisture they get from eating their prey.
THE MAJESTIC AFRICAN LEOPARD
Fossil records reflect that four-fifths of the big cats that once roamed the earth have vanished. The leopard, together with the lion and cheetah, made their appearance around 3.2 million years ago.
Throughout Africa’s history the leopard has been revered as a regal and mystical totem by kings and healers. It’s a top favourite for guests on safari, and South Africa is fortunate to have a healthy number of leopards in the wild, protected by the country’s many reserves.
Thanda Safari is one of South Africa’s leading Big Five private game reserves and the rangers go out of their way to try to find the highly elusive African leopard for guests, many of whom are obsessed with this mesmerising big cat. Leopards usually rest during the heat of the day in bushes, rocks, caves or in trees. Their beautiful long tails help them to balance on narrow tree branches and their magnificent patterned coats render them invisible in the dappled light.
As night falls the male leopard starts calling to assert its territory with three to four deep rasping grunts, and then they go silent, both for hunting stealth and so as not to advertise its whereabouts to lions in the area. A male leopard maintains tenure over its territory for five to eleven years, by which time, if he has not reached a natural end, he will usually be chased off by a younger male.
The leopard is a night hunter, fast and agile. They can run up to 58 kilometres per hour, leap 6 metres forward and 3 metres straight up. They have excellent sight and often use elevated vantage points to scan the surrounding terrain for game. On sighting a herd of impala, for example, the leopard assesses the situation and then begins stalking the herd, displaying phenomenal patience and self-control before making a move on its prey.