Wildlife Spotlight: The African LeopardMarch 11, 2021
Elusive, powerful, and jaw-droppingly beautiful, the African leopard tops the must-see list for many safari travellers. Luckily, though the species is considered vulnerable by conservationists, leopards are relatively plentiful in the game reserves of East and Southern Africa. And while there’s no guarantee you’ll see one of these solitary, formidably stealthy predators, a brush with a leopard is a singularly spellbinding experience. Here are a few reasons why.
Of all the continent’s cat species, leopards are most geographically widespread. In fact, according to recent research, leopards are currently found in 35 different African countries. This far-ranging distribution speaks to the leopards’ ability to thrive in almost any kind of habitat, from open grassland to craggy mountainsides, and from dense rainforest to parched desert.
What gives them this awe-inspiring adaptability is, in large part, their willingness to eat just about anything. Leopards consume an astonishing variety of prey—in sub-Saharan Africa alone, they’ve been recorded availing themselves of 90 different food sources (more than any other regional apex predator). These include savannah-grazing animals like zebra, wildebeest, and antelopes; swamp-dwellers like reptiles and fish; and arboreal species like monkeys and birds. Leopards are also just as glad to scavenge another predator’s kill as they are to make their own.
Leopards’ beautiful, rosette-patterned coats have also evolved to help them flourish in diverse landscapes. Depending on where they live, the cats’ markings can be paler or darker—or even appear uniformly black—to better blend into the surrounding foliage, light, and shadows. This specially tailored camouflage lets leopards stalk their prey almost invisibly in any terrain.
Magnificent Hunters—and Climbers
Leopards are extraordinary athletes. Though they’re among the smallest of the big cats (male leopards weigh an average of 130 pounds, less than half the size of a male lion), their strength is both tremendous and extremely versatile. They’re able to run at speeds up to 35 mph, bound horizontally as far as 20 feet, and swim across surging waterways. They can go without drinking water for up to 10 days, and their ultra-keen senses include eyes with widely dilating pupils that let them see perfectly in the dark. Naturally, these skills make them fearsome hunters, especially at night.
The most remarkable of leopards’ physical abilities, though, is their prowess at climbing. Their lithe physiques and brawny shoulders make them particularly adept at launching themselves into the branches of trees—which is where they’re most often spied by safari travellers. The cats like to spend the hot daylight hours resting hidden among the leaves; but sometimes they also hunt from their high perches, pouncing from above onto unsuspecting prey animals. To eat without being bothered by scavengers like hyenas, leopards will often drag their kills up into the trees with them—even when the prey animal is larger than they are. As lucky safari travelers can attest, it’s quite something to see a leopard nimbly leap onto a tree branch with a full-grown impala in its jaws!
Where and When to Spot Leopards
Leopards typically stay in their home territories—which can range from a few to many hundreds of square miles—year-round. But like many other African wildlife species, they’re easiest to see during the dry season months: December to March for East Africa, May to September for southern Africa. The cats mate, and can give birth, at any time of year; and since cubs live with their mothers for the first two years of their lives, safari travellers may glimpse small family groups of leopards no matter when they travel.
Almost any game park in East or southern Africa will offer you the opportunity to spy leopards. But to maximize your chances, you’ll want to consider a safari that incorporates preserves where their populations are abundant—and where they’re accustomed to the presence of safari vehicles. These include Serengeti and Tarangire National Parks in Tanzania; Masai Mara National Reserve and Tsavo National Park in Kenya; Kruger National Park and Sabi Sands Game Reserve in South Africa; and Chobe National Park and Moremi Game Reserve in Botswana.
We’re not the only ones enamoured with Africa’s leopards. National Geographic filmmakers Derek and Beverly Joubert are also captivated by the Jade-Eyed Leopard and if you are curious to learn more about these powerful cats you can watch their Emmy nominated film of the same name here.