To spot a leopard
There are about 3000 leopard in the Kruger National Park, which shares a boundary with Thornybush Private Nature reserve. These cats are free to roam between the two parks, and although they are very difficult to keep an eye on due to their elusive nature, are quite often sighted while on safari in Thornybush – if you know where to look.
The Leopard hunts in darkness and is most active during the evenings when they scour their territory for prey such as impala, zebra, wildebeest, warthog, baboons and porcupines. Small antelope are their favourite meal, but they are not fussy and will kill and eat almost anything including reptiles, fish and even dung beetles if the opportunity presents itself. They are more inclined to eat other predators than any other cat, with the hapless jackal most often likely to find himself on the menu.
Your best chance of seeing a leopard in action is on a night-drive with an experienced game guide.
A solitary creature, the leopard hunts alone and will not socialise with other leopards, except for a brief spell during the mating season. Both males and females usually avoid each other, swapping territories from time to time, but rarely coming into conflict. Loud coughing vocalisations are used to warn any intruders that they are too close for comfort. They mark their territories with urine, faeces and by scratch marks on trees – which you may be lucky enough to come across during a bush walk.
Their hunting methods are the classic feline stealth manoeuvres which, coupled with their astonishing strength and top speed of up to 58 km/h, make them ruthless killing machines. Prey is usually dragged up into a tree to protect it from theft by hyenas, as a solitary leopard is no match for a gang of these unruly scavengers. They will feed in the safety of the branches and also remain aloft during the day time where they can sleep and relax in peace. This is where you are most likely to spot a leopard in daylight during a game drive – draped over the branches of a sturdy tree. Keep your eyes peeled though, their camouflage is exceptional and even the most experienced safari-goer finds them difficult to spot.
Kilogram for kilogram, leopards are the strongest member of the cat family and by far the most rarely seen. Their rosette spotted coats make them appear formless, blending in with their surroundings and the dappled shade of the trees. Their magnificent hides are highly sought-after by hunters and poachers but despite this, leopard have adapted surprisingly well to living alongside mankind. Although increasing urbanisation and loss of habitat are major threats to this cat, their adaptability and habit of keeping to themselves has rarely brought them into conflict with humankind and the South African leopard population is in a healthy state compared to its relatives in other countries.