Here’s an old post of mine from my previous website, written while working in South Africa, and a favorite among many of my readers (family and friends back then). I first posted this back in August 2014.
Here are some wise words from a leopard researcher who never saw a single one of the leopards he was researching.
That researcher, well.. That would be me! After a year of this no-leopard-sighting business I am somewhat of an authority on the subject.
Here’s a bit of back-story. I started my work as a leopard researcher back in August last year in Tembe Elephant Park and Ndumo Game Reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Two reserves only separated by a small but slightly hostile community (they don’t like either park very much). My job was, and still is, to find the leopard numbers in both reserves, figure out what they eat, what sort of habitat they prefer and how they interact with the other larger predators such as lions, hyena and wild dog. Having loved big cats and carnivores since I can remember this was a dream come true! I would finally get to spend some more time with the cats I love the most in Africa, and actually having it as my job to go out and find them!
Hah! I wish!
Fast track 12 month to the present and I still haven’t seen any elusive spots hidden in the bush. Don’t get me wrong, I still love the project and the leopards, but you can imagine it being quite frustrating at times never actually seeing what you’re researching. I feel I would’ve been just as successful researching bigfoot! Maybe that should be my next project? At least I have 40 camera traps to find the leopards for me, whenever the elephants aren’t busy playing with them (the cameras that is). So, unlike bigfoot, I do know they are there, I even know that there are 30 leopards in Tembe alone! And I can ID almost every single one! For some reason that just makes it even more frustrating…
One of the Tembe females, Koseshi, caught on one of my camera traps walking on the road at mid-day! The audacity!
So, you come to Africa hoping to see a leopard? Well, talking from experience, here is what not to do:
Rule # 1. This might be the most important one. Don’t ever want to see a leopard. Especially do not ever look for one! If it is your first time in Africa, you are lucky because you most likely want to see everything. If you want to see elephants, lions, zebras, or anything else, then you might be lucky and the leopard will probably show itself. Stop looking and it will appear, as they say down here. I have just come to the point where I can’t physically or mentally not look, and that is the problem. Oh, and if you find me sharing a safari vehicle with you, you know you will not see one. Proven fact!
Rule # 2. This is an easy one. Never look for leopards during mid-day. Actually, you shouldn’t be looking for anything at that hour, except for thirsty elephants, as it is normally too hot for anything to move around. Though Koseshi in the photo up here was walking around at that exact time, leopards are highly nocturnal and do most of their movement at night, early morning and late evening. Some people are lucky and do find them doing the strangest things at the strangest hours, but that is quite unusual. If it is a cool day, then yes, you might be lucky.
Rule # 3. In my experience, never try to track it down. This might work for some, but not for me. You can see as many tracks and signs you want, but the leopard just won’t show itself. It will, however look at you from its hiding place secretly laughing at how bad your tracking skills are and more than likely jump back on the road mere minutes after you’ve passed.
Rule # 4. Never try to find one on your own, and never go looking for leopards in “normal” enclosed cars, especially if it’s a Jeep. That is what I’ve been doing and it clearly hasn’t worked. The Tembe lodge’s safari vehicles, however, see them now and again, and I guess that is because they drive massive open Land Cruisers with up to 10 guests. More eyes, higher vantage point and all that…
Rule # 5. Now this last rule comes from an experience I had just a few days ago. If you hear monkey alarm calls, don’t be stupid and just sit and listen while you look desperately around for a leopard. The monkeys, at least the vervets, have a special call for big cats, and it is an unmistakably loud and chopped up sound that will go on repeat until they cannot see the cat anymore (Check out the 5 second mark on this link to know exactly what I mean. Bear in mind they would also use this call for a lion). I heard that sound in Ndumo on Wednesday. With the fact that there are no lions and only a couple of leopards in the entire park, I basically panicked as it meant a leopard was nearby. And this in a place where people have worked as rangers for 20 years without seeing one. I froze… I looked outside and looked and looked, and when I finally came to my senses and realized where the monkeys were actually calling from I went to that spot. By the time I arrived at the scene I was too late, and the leopard had passed and walked off into the bush… Still, an almost sighting in Ndumo is almost as seeing the real deal, and if you add the fact I got leopard scat (poop in layman’s terms) I count it as quite the successful tracking!
If you find yourself out there in the bush “not” looking for leopards, always pay attention to two things. Listen for that vervet monkey alarm call, if not a leopard, it would be a lion, and that is cool to see anyway. The other thing is, try to keep your nose open to the smell of popcorn. Yes, popcorn! The scent marking of a leopard smells exactly like popcorn, so if you get that smell in the bush a leopard has just been there, or might still be around.
I do have to end with a little bit of a success story though. I did actually manage to see a leopard, however briefly, in January this year in the Eastern Shores of the iSimangaliso (the park I live next to when not working in Tembe or Ndumo), thanks to, wait for it…… the monkeys! I was out with my better half parked by the side of the road doing a bird survey for her school work and we got that alarm call behind us in the forest. We kept looking and looking but nothing appeared. Suddenly, after 10 minutes it appeared on the road about 50 meters ahead of us. It looked at us briefly before crossing, and then it was gone. Not one of my research animals, but a leopard nonetheless! I got the proof as well, though the photo is nothing spectacular as it was taken in pure panic and excitement (I almost broke my phone in the ordeal). The moral of the story? Be patient, it did take 10 minutes before the leopard actually appeared.
So, there it is! Now you know how not to see a leopard, and hopefully I taught you something that might help you eventually find one of these amazing cats someday.
Just to add to this story. Six months after I wrote this I finished up my project, and I still never got to see a Tembe or Ndumo leopard (I did get very close with a leopard basically roaring in my ear while she hid behind some bushes, but of course I could not see her (yes, I even knew exactly which leopard it was)). On my very last day in the Eastern Shores however, just a few days before my last flight out of South Africa, I finally got to see this chap below not far away from the area where I saw the one pictured above (and there was a female with him). Just imagine the joy I felt! How did I find him you ask? A few tourists had seen a leopard cross the road. As they gave up waiting for it to reappear, I sat for 15 minutes before it came back. Again, be patient!