We've had mixed fortunes over the years when it comes to leopard sightings in KNP. One year we hit the jackpot with 7 different sightings in 8 days where as other trips not so much as a brief glimpse. But that's how it goes with these elusive cats. With their nocturnal habits and exceptional camouflage, you do need a fair bit of luck on your side.
On the plus side they are incredibly adaptive and can be found right across KNP in almost any habitat. We've be fortunate enough to come across these remarkable creatures in most areas of the park, from Shingwetsi to Crocodile bridge. Most of our sightings have occurred in or around river beds, or alternatively by coming across an unfortunate impala (or other prey) dangling from the branch of a tree.
Coming across leopard cubs is one of the all time rare treats in the bush, considering that they are generally well hidden from predators. If you happen to locate the den then it’s always worth hanging around for mom to come home from her night time hunt. That's when the little ones really let loose and literally bounce off the walls (or trees in this case). It makes for some a very special sighting, one that you won’t forget in a hurry.
Anyway, here are my top 3 leopard sightings in KNP.
1. Biyamiti weir - We came across a male leopard on his evening patrol at the end of the Biyamiti road. He was on a serious mission, marking his territory, climbing rocks and logs searching for a good vantage point, constantly on the look out. He kept disappearing from sight but we kept locating him again and again because of the reactions alarm calls from the other animals and birds in the area. Scrub hares and other small game would explode out the bush and sure enough not far behind was this beautiful male going about his patrol. In the end we followed him for about 30 minutes until it was time to start heading back. As a parting gift to us he climbed up onto a big bolder right next to the car and looked down at us as if to say goodbye. Special!
2. Satara - H1-4. On a morning drive we came across a dead impala hanging from the branch of a tall tree. We decided to hang around for a bit to see what came along. After a while we detected some movement in a thicket and soon realised it was a pair of small leopard cubs. They were pretty tough to see but once mom returned some time later, they came out of their hiding places and started running amuck. All you saw were these two spotted terrors racing around and tackling one another and poor mom. They clearly had some energy to burn off. The highlight was when one of the cubs climbed up the tree and had a go at the kill. They were having a great time until some kudu crashed the party. The cubs quickly returned to their mother’s side and then back to their hiding spot. It was a thoroughly entertaining sighting and one we will never forget.
3. Skukuza H1-4 - one of the loops of the tar road. We came across several different species grouped together in a clearing. There were some kudu, impala and some giraffe all browsing and looking very relaxed. Little did they know all hell was about to break loose. Out of nowhere a leopard exploded out of the bush and went for one of the unsuspecting impala. It was over so quickly, all we saw was a brief flash of spots and a flickering tail. Unfortunately the leopard was unsuccessful this time but it is still the closest we have come to seeing a leopard kill in the wild. Huddled together now, the impala sounded their alarm calls and didn’t let the leopard out of their sight. We thought the danger was pretty much over once the impala and other game were alert to the leopard’s presence but surprisingly the leopard had other ideas. It backed off into the bush and then began to stalk the impala from a different angle all over again. However, nothing happened this time around and the leopard eventually made his way off in search of another opportunity. It was an incredible few minutes and it sure got our hearts racing.
These elusive cats are certainly something special and coming across one in the wild is an experience you won't forget in a hurry. What are some of your best leopard experiences in KNP? Where did you see it and what sought of behaviour did you witness?