There is nowhere better to see leopards in the wild than South Luangwa National Park. Although normally nocturnal, in the Park they are often active in the early morning or late afternoon. And these are the times I photograph them.
Leopards are usually solitary and hunt alone. Females will kill for their offspring and teach their cubs how to hunt. Males and females get together for mating, but otherwise remain separate.
Each leopard has a territory, about 5 square miles for females, more than double that for males. The territories for males and females can overlap. During the heat of the day, they will hide under bushes or sleep in a tree, draped across a thick branch. They may have already made a kill and dragged it up into the tree to eat at leisure (without having to worry about a hyena or a pride of lions from stealing it). I am amazed at how strong leopards are, pulling a dead antelope which weighs more than they do, 5 metres vertically up a tree.
Leopards hunt by stealth. Their favourite technique is to use a gully to creep up on their prey. Once within five metres, it will pounce on the unsuspecting victim. Small animals can be killed by a bite to the back of the neck, but larger antelopes need to be suffocated by the leopard clamping its jaws around the windpipe.
Leopards can run fast, upto 50kph for short distances but they are not built for prolonged bursts of speed. They choose their prey carefully, to avoid being injured. They are wary of taking adult warthogs whose sharp tusks can inflict serious wounds, for example. If they do get hurt, no one is going to hunt for them while they recover. They prefer to take antelope, such as impala and puku.
Leopards have long bodies and short legs. When stalking, their shoulders rise above their bodies as they creep along, belly close to the ground.
A colleague witnessed two female leopards, each with two kits, sharing a kill. This is unusual – perhaps the leopards were sisters and recognised each other.
Because they are territorial, safari guides get to know individual leopards as they drive around their patch. One female leopard, known as “Marmalade”, was so habituated to game drive vehicles that she would use them as cover, sometimes crawling underneath to get closer to her prey.
I met one of Marmalade’s offspring, “Alice”, in 2014 as I had to drive through her territory when going from my quarters to the health centre each day. I have photographs of Alice from that time, but she has probably died. All these pictures are of leopards seen during the past three months.
In mid September, I followed an experienced guide off the main track to see leopards mating. They do this more discretely than lions, who are quite blatant about it. Unfortunately, they were deep within a thicket and all I could hear were coital growls and snarls.
My house is in the territory of a female leopard. When she prowls around at night, the baboons in the tree over my roof, go berserk, screeching out alarm calls. A colleague found a trail in the dust which had been created by the leopard dragging a dead bushbuck over a kilometre to a thorn bush, which concealed a young cub. There was a central drag mark, with paw prints on either side.
As you may have guessed, leopards are my favourite predator in the Park. I get withdrawal symptoms if a week goes by and I haven’t seen one. Sometimes I see them unexpectedly, walking nonchalantly across the track in front of me. If I am lucky, I spot a carcass hanging below a tree, but the leopard may have just parked the dead animal in a safe place to eat later.