We lucked out with a close up leopard encounter along a river bed in Kruger. This impressive male had killed an adult male impala earlier in the morning and dragged it over 100 meters from the edge of the river, up a steep slope and into a small stand of trees right next to a pullout.
For the next few days we watched him off and on as he came back to feed in the early mornings. Such impressive animals and always a thrill to see them in the wild.
If your options were a pride of half sleeping lions along a riverbed surrounded by buffalo, waterbuck and giraffe or a warthog carcass hanging in the tree next to a major park road with no leopard in sight, where would you choose to park your car? Not a bad decision to make but that was the choice I was facing late one afternoon near the Satara campsite. It was about 4pm, which meant there were only a two hours left before everyone had to be back into campsites for the 6pm curfew. Though I never got an official answer as to why the 6pm curfew, I’m almost certain it is mainly because of poaching within the park. With no other vehicles driving around it would be very easy for park wardens to spot any flashlights, headlights, etc. out in the park and catch any poachers (which unfortunately continue to be quiet a problem within the park). An added benefit is that is gives the animals a night of piece and quiet away from all the tourists. It seemed unlikely that the leopard would come back during the day and so we returned to the pride of lions, which included adult and sub-adult males and females were resting under some large trees adjacent to a river bed. Periodically one would get up, walk a few steps and flop back down into the grass. Buffalo and waterbuck knew they were there but they also wanted to get a drink. A few brave ones kept their eyes on the lions while they quickly grabbed a drink from the opposite side of the bank. Two male giraffe were off in the distance ‘necking’ which is where the males stand side by side and swing their heads out and down until they collide against each other as a way of determining strength and dominance. The lions showed a bit of interest but even though they didn’t look like they had recently fed, they did not make any attempts to go in for a kill. After watching them for some time, it was clear they were not going to go hunting anytime soon so we decided to drive back to check if the leopard had come back to claim it’s prize. While there had been a few cars parked along the road patiently waiting for the leopard to return the first time we passed by, this time there was a traffic jam! Sure enough, a big male leopard was laying overtop of his prize gazing down at all us and periodically licking the hide like a content house cat after catching a mouse. He took a few bites but seemed restless and within a few minutes he got up and jumped down out of the tree. To my surprise a hyena was lopping under the tree gazing up at the fresh meat when the leopard came down but neither of them paid any attention to the other. The leopard walk 20 meters away and laid down in the open savannah and the hyena continued to make circles under the tree. I had lost track of time but when I looked up all the cars were gone and it was 6pm. At that point we were already going to be late to the campsite. While I couldn’t remember exactly what the punishment for being late was, the fine was surely not going to be more than $20 dollars so what was a few more minutes? We watch the leopard as he cleaned off his face and paws and the hyena eventually gave up and wondered off. As the last bit of sunlight vanished from the sky we figured it was time to get back to the campsite and so with great hesitation I turned the car around, took one last glace at the leopard and raced back to the campsite. We were 14 minutes late. The gates were locked and a stern looking guard with a rifle was standing next to the gate. He took down our licence plate in case there were future transgressions and after a stern warning he let us in!
I’m back! I know it’s been quiet some time since I last posted photos on my blog so thank you for hanging around. Hopefully in the next few months I can start updating my blog on a more regular basis. I still have lots of photos from my trip last year to Kenya to add in addition to all the new photos I have of wildlife in Alberta, Canada. But I thought I would start off with a few photos from my most recent trip to South Africa. The reason for the trip was because I was teaching a course at the annual Pan African Sanctuary Alliance (PASA) Healthcare Workshop hosted by JGI Chimp Eden in Nelspruit, South Africa. The workshop is for veterinary personnel working in sanctuaries throughout Africa that care for great apes (gorillas, chimps, bonobos). I have been involved with PASA since 2003 and I am always amazed each time I come to these conferences to meet the vets working throughout Africa that do so much for the wildlife in their sanctuaries with so little in terms of supplies and basic things like reliable electricity. If you are interested in learning more about PASA please visit http://www.pasaprimates.org or find them on Facebook.
After the workshop I rented a car with a colleague from the workshop and we drove the short distance from Nelspruit to Kruger National Park. If you have the opportunity to visit this park I highly recommend renting a car and making your own safari. It is not any more expensive than going with a safari company and you can set your own itinerary. We woke up at 4am to be at the camp gate when it opened at 430am and started the morning game drive. About two hours into the drive we started passing by a bunch of large acacia trees and I thought they would be excellent places for a leopard to be resting in. Literally within a few minutes I spotted a leopard sitting up in a tree about 50 feet away. We watched if for about 10 minutes as it tried to get comfortable in the tree and get some sleep. However, it was restless and seemed to be distracted by something. It got up, stretched and slowly made it’s way down the tree to the ground. At this point all I could see was it’s tail. Initially it stayed in the spot it landed on the ground but then all of a sudden it started jumping around in the tall grass as if it was playing with something. Within a few seconds I could no longer see it anymore but I was confident that if we had patience we would see it again. We slowly circled the car around the next corner and then backtracked to the original spot but did not see the leopard. We circled around the corner again and just as we started to drive off my colleague yelled out “leopard, no two leopards!” They were sitting in the grass about 20 feet away staring at us! We couldn’t believe our luck. Not one, but two leopards and both were in a clearing with great morning light on them. Over about five minutes we watched them as they made their way through the green grass. It appeared it was a mom and her almost full grown female cub. They rubbed chins together as they walked along without a care that we were there. The next two photos are a few more I took before they disappeared.
I couldn’t believe my good luck. Not only were there two leopards, but they were in a wide open clearing with beautiful, soft morning light. I took this picture just before this leopard walked behind a bush and in between me cursing my periodically malfunctioning camera.
Shortly after both leopards crossed the road 20 feet in front of my car they slowly disappeared into the grass. This was one of the last photos I took before driving off to let them to find some breakfast. I think it was about this point that I finally took a breath and relaxed. Thankfully my malfunctioning camera managed to work properly for a few minutes to get a few great shots of these amazing cats but I was kicking myself for not getting the camera repaired prior to this trip. Regardless of all the shots I missed, this leopard encounter is something I will never forget.
As you can probably guess from these photos, I managed to get back to East Africa last month, specifically Kenya. The first part of the trip was for work as I was attending and instructing at the 2009 PASA (Pan African Sanctuary Alliance) Healthcare Workshop. Afterwards, I spent a week visiting Amboseli and Maasai Mara National Parks and went on numerous game drives. Over the next several weeks I will be posting the photos from my trip and brief stories about each one.
Although leopards are believed to be the most numerous of the big cats in Africa, they are very elusive and therefore, you have to be incredibly lucky to see one. Samburu National Park in Kenya is the best place to see leopard, but I wasn’t able to get a safari to Samburu this time. However, luck was still on my side, as this one was resting in a tree close to the road in the Maasai Mara. The foliage was very dense and initially all that I could see was a foot and a part of the tail, but after several minutes the leopard changed position and I was able to get this picture. After several minutes it climbed down the trunk and got a drink of water from the small stream below before returning to it’s vantage point in the tree. With it being the rainy season, the undergrowth was very dense and so all that we were able to see during this time were flashes of his spots moving amongst the vegetation. It was amazing to be able to see the leopard move without a sound and blend so well into it’s surroundings.