One of the highlights of any safari is spotting big cats. In Africa, there are three species which can be seen: lion, cheetah and leopard.
Many safari novices, fed a diet of superb natural history programmes on television, assume that the big cats are waiting to pounce on you around every bend. Unfortunately, seeing big cats on safari is not that simple.
The easiest one to spot is undoubtedly the lion. Despite its numbers crashing to about ten thousand, there are several factors which mean that for most tourists, spotting a lion can almost be taken for granted. For a start, it usually goes around as a group. Therefore, if you miss one you’re likely to spot another and gradually the positions of the whole pride can be revealed. The lion also tends to have a small home range where it hunts in regular spots. The fact that it is also prepared to lie out on open plains, as well as under trees and bushes, further aids its identification.
Cheetah are fewer in number and harder to see. It is a diurnal hunter and needs vantage points, like termite mounds, from which to spot prey. It tends to inhabit open plains for its hunting of creatures like Thompson gazelle which again aids its visibility. However, it usually leads a solitary existence unless in a coalition of brothers or has cubs. The best chance to see it is when it has made a kill and the vultures or hyenas give away its location by moving towards it in order to steal its prey. If you actually see one hunting you are extremely fortunate.
The hardest of the big cats to see is the elusive leopard or chui as it is known in Swahili. I’ve spent many fruitless hours getting a stiff neck peering up into large trees or along rocky hillsides, hoping to get a sight of these magnificent beasts. Although still reasonably common, including being spotted at night in the outskirts of Nairobi, the leopard is a secretive animal which avoids human contact. It is generally nocturnal and therefore difficult to spot. To see a leopard is a rare privilege and many safari tourists never do.
Leopards are pound for pound probably the strongest of the African big cats. The manner in which they stash their prey, such as large antelope, up in the fork of a tree is testimony to their strength and perseverance. Indeed, if you locate a prey stored like this you have a chance of seeing a leopard when it returns to feed. I rarely see leopard on safari, and never yet in the characteristic pose of sprawled over the sturdy horizontal branch of a tree. I’ve been lucky a couple of times to see them walking through tall grass with tail held aloft, a sure sign that they were not hunting when the tail is kept low.
I’ve also seen one after two young lionesses had stolen its prey from under its nose in a tree. A leopard will not take on a lion and as soon as the lionesses had come down the tree with the corpse of a dik-dik, the large male leopard also descended and ran off in the opposite direction.
You can see leopard in any of the game parks but even in the Luangwa valley in Zambia, which has reportedly the highest density of leopards in East Africa, you need luck. I spent a whole week there looking for leopard and didn’t see one, although other visitors to the camp saw several.
My best spot of a leopard in my early safaris was in the Kruger Park in South Africa. The manner of it again shows the amount of luck that can be involved in obtaining that special sighting. We were out on a game drive when a message came over the radio that a young leopard had been spotted in a sand river. Before long we were in a convoy of eight jeeps hurtling along. A fallen tree blocked our progress and the six vehicles in front of us careered up the left bank of the sand river to continue the pursuit. Our driver, realising that our chances of even seeing the leopard in seventh place were remote, drove up the right bank. Slowing, we eased forward, looking in all directions for a sign of the leopard.
It wasn’t long before we saw a four-year-old male leopard that the driver had known since birth, staring at us from a thicket. We killed the engine and watched. After some time, with the noise of the other jeeps receding into the distance, the leopard emerged. Scenting the air, it moved along the track in front of us. As quietly as possible we followed and were just in time to see it flush a francolin, which is a bird similar to a partridge. The francolin dived into a hole and the leopard dug it out and quickly killed it.
Having ate, the leopard moved on and again we followed. At that time, I had achieved no decent photos as the leopard always seemed to be facing away from me and the track wasn’t wide enough for us to get ahead of it. Eventually, after several hundred yards, the leopard was lost to view and we assumed that was the end of our contact. Imagine therefore our amazement, when negotiating some bushes, we came face to face with the leopard lying on open ground washing itself. We sat, photographed and watched it for fifteen minutes before leaving it in peace and moving on. The guide said that it was his closest and best sighting in the four years he had known the animal. My wife, with her small compact camera, was so close that the leopard’s front paw completely filled the viewfinder of her camera.
In wildlife art, leopards are a popular subject which are frequently drawn and painted to a high standard in a variety of medium. Few examples I have seen however can compare for skill and impact with David’s Oluearu Keri (Maasai leopard). Other folk must feel the same as I saw the original sold at a David Shepherd fund raising evening at Christies many years ago. Of all the pictures on sale, donated by the best wildlife artists in the country, this was the one that drew the most attention. The fact that it passed £3000 in around 60 seconds in the auction says it all!