Leopards and why we love them

Sabi Sand | March 2017

Singita Sabi Sand has some of the best leopard viewing in the world. Those who’ve done their research know this and it is the reason people travel from across the globe to try catch a glimpse of these beautiful beasts. We are spoilt when it comes to our big cat sightings in general, but an incredibly high leopard density produces some of the best sightings one could ever hope for. And it is not just the guests that go goo-goo eyed over leopards, it is us too – the guides and trackers who spend almost every day of our lives in the bushveld tracking and viewing the elusive animals. But why? Why do we dedicate so much time and emotion to them? Why are we so enamoured with the slyest of the Big 5?

As human beings, we are attracted to beauty. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder and something someone may find attractive could be seen as grotesque by another. Yet there is a universal beauty, a beauty that holds true in every eye. This is the beauty of Nature. And the heart of this beauty is found in a leopard. Anyone fortunate enough to have laid eyes on a leopard will know this. Very little can compare. The golden-yellow coat and its incredible vividness catches everyone by surprise. It is almost hard to believe that Nature can produce a creature so flamboyant, so rich and so full of life. One of the most intriguing parts is its pattern; the black and brown spots, known as rosettes, that grow and shrink and morph into different shapes as they scatter across the leopard’s athletic body. Some are big black blotches over the belly, others the most petite and faultless specks that dust the hairs between the toes. It’s as though every part of the leopard’s body has been designed perfectly. Every inch is unique.

I have spent many hours sitting in silence, watching leopards as they sleep in the shade of a tree or drape over one of its branches. The thing is, a leopard doesn’t have to be doing anything exceptional to be captivating. Just being in one’s presence is enough for you to appreciate its artistry. It is enough to send you into an incubus, a dream world where real life seems to diminish into a void and you are left in this cosmos of untold potential. Visually a leopard is attractive, I have mentioned this already, but knowing what it is capable of is most impressive. Graceful yet powerful. It is the ninja of the bush world, the ultimate stalk and pounce predator.

Moving low and slow through the short grass, inching forward paw by paw towards its prey, not making a sound. Deliberate and intense, like the silent assassin moving through the shadows. The beautiful rosettes becoming one with the dappled light, providing the perfect camouflage. And you don’t need to see it, although it would be one of the most thrilling moments of a safari, you just know it and feel it by watching the leopard.

Experiencing an animal in its natural environment is the best way to experience it. Often I have had people say to me after their first safari that they could not face an animal in a zoo again. Something changes inside you once you see an animal in its comfort zone, the place it was meant for, the place it was created for. Singita Sabi Sand provides the perfect habitat for leopard; drainage lines and river beds for them to move through, dense bush thickets to give them cover and house their prey, and large riverine trees to climb to rest and observe. And a leopard is never more comfortable than when it is up a tree. With their incredibly flexible bodies, strong shoulders and neck, long tail and sharp claws, leopards are designed for tree tops. They move with ease and grace, bounding from branch to branch in a blur of black and gold. Perfectly balanced. I often think of how awkward and uncoordinated I would be up in those branches, clinging on for dear life and trying not to take a terrifying tumble down to the earth. And yet there it is, as at ease in the tree as it would be on solid ground.

I once watched a young leopardess hunting monkeys in a tree on the edge of a drainage line. She trapped one of the adults right at the top of the tree by mirroring its moves. Every time it moved left, she moved left. Every time it moved right, she moved right. It was so calculated, so precise. She was waiting for the opportune moment to strike. And when that moment came, she made no mistake. She darted up the tree at the speed of light, reaching the top in a fraction of a moment. The monkey made a desperate attempt to jump in to the next tree, leaping and sailing through the air, but the leopardess was right behind it. In a couple of strides, the leopard scaled the very top branches and with a full Superman dive, also flew through the air and, with an outstretched paw, managed to snatch the monkey as it was landing in the branches. Both monkey and leopard tumbled to the ground. Now I have to add that this wasn’t a small tree. This was a large ebony tree, easily 10 metres in height, that the two had just fallen from. Thud! A cloud of dust formed that made seeing anything impossible. But out of that cloud of dust emerged the leopardess with monkey in mouth, walking off like nothing had happened. We sat there, stunned. Or amazed. Or both. Speechless to what we had just witnessed.

Leopards are beyond beautiful, they’re incredibly athletic and they have managed to adapt and survive better than any other of the big cats. And yet they demand no glory. They shy away, staying out of the spotlight, unobtrusively moving wherever they please. So sly, so secretive. They grace us with glimpses into their lives but very rarely anything more. By human nature, we want what we can’t have and we always want more. So why do we love leopards? I guess it is all of the above. They are an intricate and amazing part of the natural world we get to experience whilst out on safari. They are the complete package. And if you haven’t had the extreme pleasure of experiencing a leopard, you had better come visit us soon!