Last week, I returned from my three-week trip to South Africa and was able to check completion of an Earthwatch Expedition off of my bucket list. Many of you know that I recently traveled to the Soutpansberg mountains to take part in the Primates and Predators project sponsored by the Department of Anthropology at Durham University in the United Kingdom and hosted by the Lajuma Research Center. The project focuses its research on the study of primates–primarily Chacma baboons, Samango monkeys and Vervet monkeys and of course, Leopards. In the next few weeks, I’ll be recounting tales from my great adventure in a series of blog posts. I begin with a few stories from my safari in Kruger National Park.
Despite my initial travel catastrophe en route from Atlanta to South Africa (which took a long detour through the Netherlands), I finally made it to Kruger National Park on July 9 and was able to experience two days of safari game drives. If you’ve gone on safari before, you know that the bush is unpredictable. If you get a chance to see elusive leopards, cheetahs or lions, then you’re a mighty lucky person. Well, I got to see them all! And my encounters with a leopard in Kruger National Park were especially off the charts.
The leopard (Panthera pardus) is a powerful cat that typically finds its home in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, though small populations also occur in the Middle East and south-eastern Europe. Currently, the leopard is listed as “Vulnerable” on the ICUN List of Threatened Species. In recent years, leopard populations have been dramatically reduced due to continued persecution with increased human populations (Thorn et al. 2013, Selvan et al. 2014), habitat fragmentation (UN 2014), increased illegal wildlife trade (Datta et al. 2008), excessive harvesting for ceremonial use of skins (G. Balme pers. comm. 2015), prey base declines (Hatton et al. 2001, du Toit 2004, Fusari and Carpaneto 2006, Datta et al. 2008, Lindsey et al. 2014, Selvan et al. 2014) and poorly managed trophy hunting (Balme et al. 2009). There are few reliable data on changes in the status of leopards (distribution or abundance) throughout Africa over the last three generations, although there is compelling evidence that subpopulations have likely declined considerably. South Africa has suspended trophy hunting of Leopards for the year in 2016, but it may issue permits in the future.
Of the African large cats, leopards are the least social and usually keep to themselves. They are most active in the afternoon or at night. The leopard is the second largest cat in Africa after the lion, reaching an average weight of 138 to 161 pounds. A leopard’s coat is covered with a unique imprint of rosettes with spots on the legs and tail. It is possible to identify an individual leopard from its coat. When hunting, leopards prefer to ambush their prey or to stalk it, getting as close to their target as possible before exerting a quick surge of energy to pounce and make their kill. Unlike cheetah, leopards do not like the chase and will give up if their prey escapes their initial attempt. Leopards are so strong that they are capable of easily climbing trees and dragging their prey up with them for safe-keeping. Indeed, the first time I saw a leopard in Kruger in 2012, it was napping high up in a tree next to a dead impala.
Kruger National Park is one of the largest game reserves in Africa and home to the Big Five-Lion, Leopard, Elephant, Rhino and Buffalo. It covers an area of 7,523 square miles and spans two provinces. Estimates of leopard populations in Kruger are highly uncertain, but the park service suggests that as of 2011 there were as many as 1,000 leopards in the park. That adds up to about .13 leopards per square mile. Given the number per distance and their ability to camouflage themselves in the dry vegetation of the Winter season, my chances for seeing a leopard in Kruger were very slim from the outset.
In Kruger National Park, there are there are many camps and lodges to choose from. For my second visit, I chose to stay at Hamilton’s Tented Camp again. The Tented Camp consists of six tents located in the Mluwati concession in Kruger National Park on the banks of the Nwatswitsonto River, which is mostly dry during the Winter season.
Nonetheless, it attracts many animals to walk right by guests staying in camp. The camp is unfenced and wildlife moves freely though the camp. There are raised walkways between the tents and the lobby area for safety of guests. In addition, guests are accompanied back to their tents at night for their protection.
I arrived at Hamiltons at 1pm on July 9, just in time for lunch. The guests staying in the camp take their meals on the deck of the main tent and reception area. Like the other tents, the main tent overlooks the dry river bed. During lunch, it is not uncommon to see elephants or impala walking by to reach the last remnants of fresh water located just 200 feet away from the deck. It is one of the reasons why staying at Hamilton’s Tented Camp is so special.
After lunch, the rangers filled me in on what had happened the day before…the day I was originally supposed to arrive. It was after the guests had their breakfast when a male leopard chased a warthog into the dry river bed and then made his kill.
The leopard dragged the dead warthog up the bank of the river bed and carried it under tent #1. Yes, that’s right. The leopard and the dead warthog took up residence under a tent where guests were staying. A man staying in tent #1 happened to be taking an outdoor shower when he heard the commotion underneath his tent. He looked over the wood privacy fence and to his surprise, came face to face with a male leopard, which was not at all happy to see him. The leopard hissed and snarled and him, and eventually convinced him to go back into his tent and call the rangers.
The rangers arrived on scene and scared the leopard out from underneath the tent. But they couldn’t leave the warthog carcass behind. The leopard would come back for it. And other predators such as hyenas would eventually join him to compete over the kill. This would not be not a safe situation for guests staying in the tents so something had to be done. The rangers dragged the warthog across the dry river bed and left it there for the leopard. This was no small feat. Male warthogs weight anywhere from 130 to 330 pounds. The leopard, likely irritated from his encounter with the rangers, recovered his kill and dragged the dead warthog up a tree for safe-keeping.
The rangers predicted that the leopard would stick around for about four days until it finished the entire carcass. As a result, we were able to see the leopard over the course of the next two days. Leopards are quite elusive in the wild, so this was truly an extraordinary experience and worth any trouble on my travels to South Africa. Our camp was also visited each night by at least seven spotted hyenas. I could hear them howling outside my tent at night, and even saw one on the way back from dinner on my first evening.
On my last day, we found the leopard eating breakfast from his warthog kill once again. In the video, I direct the camera upwards so that you can see the tent and raised walkway in Hamilton’s Tented Camp just across the river.
Because Hamilton’s Tented Camp is located on a private reserve, we were able to spend a great deal of time with him. The leopard eventually finished his last bite of the warthog, got up and left to find a quiet place to nap. He will not hunt again until he is hungry.
After a few days of safari, I headed into the Soutpansberg mountains to Lajuma Research Center, home to the densest population of leopards in Africa. Ironically, I did not get a chance to see any leopards during my two weeks on the Earthwatch expedition, which was my only complaint about the experience (it was awesome!). There was plenty of evidence of leopards in camp though (tracks and scat). It soon became clear that the leopards were seeing us, but we were not seeing them. We did find many leopards while tagging photos from the camera traps that we visited. Our team even identified and named two new leopard cubs. In closing, here are a few pictures of leopards captured on the camera traps.
The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.