Some of the first images that may come to mind when one thinks of leopards are elusive, shy, and secretive characters. As much as this may be their very nature, there are some areas where leopards have become accustomed to game viewing vehicles spending time around them.
One of the first mature and relaxed male leopards that I have come across is a male called Ravenscourt. He was born in February 2012 and was sired by Kashane (father) and Ravenscourt female (mother). The first time I got to spend time with this gorgeous boy he was sitting casually at a water hole. Ravenscourt was entering his prime at around six years old. I clearly recall noticing how round his cheeks were, as if he had two tennis balls stuck in there.
His behaviour was completely contrary to the general characteristics of a leopard. He sat confidently, completely unperturbed with our presence. He tolerated us and would hardly even look my way.
Ravenscourt was quickly securing the status of dominant male in the area when we first met. He had three major contenders to deal with namely Dayone, Nyelethi and Torchwood. He managed to overcome these challengers and set clearly defined boundaries for himself. Although he is missing his top left canine tooth, his tall and buff physique puts him at the top of the bushveld fight club.
The territory that Ravenscourt has acquired over the last couple of years has expanded a great deal. He pushes from the Sand River all the way down to the southern boundary of the reserve. This covers an area of approximately 75km2. With this amount of ground to cover, Ravenscourt constantly needs to be on the move. This can make tracking this male leopard a frustrating process. I have witnessed the speed at which he walks and keeping up with him on foot can be exhausting. Loosing track of him for only a brief moment can result in starting the search almost from scratch. One thing I always hope for is a territorial rasp. This is a sure way to get a direction indicator and to get a sense of how far away he is of you.
Being the dominant male leopard certainly has its advantages. Ravenscourt’s territory overlaps various female leopard territories namely Basile, Thlangisa, Khokovela, Kelly Dam and Boulders. As he moves through different sections of his territory, he is bound to bump into some of these females. I have been extremely fortunate to spend time witnessing these leopards perform their mating rituals. As mating can take up to five days, sometimes the females have to keep up with him as he insists on patrolling his vast territory. He has however only sired two successful leopards, Hlambela male and Tisela female.
One of the highlights that I have witnessed with this male was an unexpected yet successful hunt. I found Ravenscourt moving on and off a dusty road while patrolling and marking his territory. He eventually veered off into the bush and I managed to follow him through. All of a sudden he just darted into a thicket. I switched off my vehicle and heard a scuffle happening inside the bushes. A second later Ravenscourt emerged carrying a duiker in his mouth. I could not believe my luck! Witnessing a sighting like this does not happen often. He made sure the coast was clear and then sat down close to where I was stationed and fed on his meal.
With his experience gained over the last few years, he has become a highly successful hunter. I have spent a considerable time with him feeding on impala and warthogs dragged up a tree. Being the size that he is, he will often feed on the ground. I have seen him confidently stand his ground to a hyena until the scavenger moved off.
From time to time I get to face Ravenscourt head on, whether that is in a vehicle or on foot. He has a certain look which he gives that makes you realise how insignificant you are. Yet there is still something so magical about locking eyes with these magnificent animals.
All in all spending time with this male is an absolute pleasure. He will usually provide you with ample time to take in his beauty and watch how he goes about his daily business. He is also a very photogenic leopard and capturing some memorable images of him seems like a piece of cake.
The beauty about heading out on safari is that it is a relatively open ended adventure. You are generally presented with a wide network of roads and different directions in which to roam. How you choose to navigate around the reserves is up to you.
There are many different approaches that you can take when spending your time on safari. Some people love to drive around all day and cover long distances, taking in the vast landscapes of the game reserves, while keeping a keen eye out for animals along the way. Others prefer a slower approach and would rather head off to a quiet water source and wait patiently for animals to come to them.
Both approaches can yield phenomenal game viewing opportunities. The post below highlights some of the fantastic sightings I have witnessed during drives spent along water sources.
Depending on one’s level of patience, there is so much more to look out for along the water sources than only the larger animals. Birding can be a great way to pass some time. Some birds like the Pied Kingfisher and Malachite Kingfisher will often perch on open branches or reeds and dive down at lightning speed hoping to strike at some fish below.
If you scan the reed beds along the water’s edge, you may notice a heron that is standing motionless, gazing at the water waiting to spear a fish or a frog.
If you spend enough time scanning up and down the water system, you may just strike it lucky and get to see some of the more elusive and rare birds like a Squacco Heron or African Finfoot. Sometimes even the smaller and more common species like a Three-banded Plover can provide endless entertainment.
One of the biggest treats to the ‘sit and wait’ strategy is randomly having one of the big cats rock up unexpectedly for a drink. This does not happen as frequently and many factors like time of day and weather conditions, together with some luck, play a large role. One may have to find them moving towards a water source, go ahead of them and wait at the water’s edge and anticipate where they may come down for a drink.
Cats tend to consume a fair amount of water in one go so time spent with them at the water’s edge is a rewarding one and should allow enough time to prepare for a good image. One of my favourite sounds to listen to is the sound of the cats lapping up water, if the distance and conditions allow it. Cats, as with most animals, are extremely wary of heading down to the water. Having their head down and back exposed puts these animals in a vulnerable position. You will often see them looking around with great focus as they quench their thirst.
Sometimes cats do not play along with you and simply go lay down on a rock and take in the scenic waterfront views with you.
When it comes to the larger mammals and water, many of them will use this time to bath themselves or interact among themselves to strengthen the social bonds within the various herds.
Elephants most definitely love the water. Besides drinking up to one hundred odd litres of water a day, they also love to splash themselves to cool down. Sometimes they just seem to make a mess around the water’s edge, because they can.
Whenever I approach water, I quickly scan to see if I can spot a hippo or signs thereof. Not only for safety reasons, but I also find them a pleasure to view. Sometimes you will have to wait a few minutes before they lift their heads out of the water and take a deep breath. The most entertaining part of viewing hippos is hearing their comical grunt like call. To me it sounds as if they are mocking someone who has just told a really boring joke.
There always seems to be some kind of animal making its way down to the water. Sometimes a warthog with its youngster or some antelope like impala or kudu will pop in for a quick drink. Sometimes this lasts ten to fifteen seconds and the animal moves off as if it was never there.
If you head off on a private safari at a private game reserve, you may have the opportunity to alight from the vehicle, if the field guide deems it safe and appropriate to do so. One of my favourite and unexpected moments was hanging around some large boulders along a rivers edge. Between two of the rocks a water monitor emerged. I almost had to look twice as this reptile carried an enormous fish in its mouth. It had to fight off a smaller water monitor in order to keep its prized meal.
Regardless of the time of day or which season you may be enjoying your safari; all animals need to go for a drink at some point. Why not hang around the water’s edge and see what might show up.
There are some leopards that just manage to creep into your heart, no matter what it is that they do, or how it is that they act.
A young female leopard, Tisela, is one of these leopards. Tisela means the patient one or the one who waits. She is finally independent from her mother, Boulders. This feline, together with her brother, Hlambela, had a rough start when their mom sustained a serious injury to one of her legs. It seemed as if Boulders abandoned her litter at around six months old. Usually cubs of this age will struggle to feed themselves. Tisela and Hlambela quickly formed a formidable partnership and managed to learn how to hunt for mongoose. This turned out to be a major success strategy for the two young leopard cubs. Boulders eventually healed from her injury and reunited with Tisela and Hlambela.
The dynamic duo split from Boulders at a fairly early age and the two youngsters formed a little partnership. The siblings kept each other company and formed a mean mongoose hunting party. Unfortunately for Tisela, Hlambela started to grow faster than what she could. He grew taller and stronger and as a result he would bully her off any food that the two managed to gather. The two leopards eventually split and went their separate ways.
Tisela has done phenomenally well to avoid confrontations with some of the more dominant female leopards in the area. She has managed to carve out a small territory that runs parallel to her mom’s current territory. This little wedge has a few prominent water holes and plenty of antelope and smaller creatures for her to survive.
My latest interaction with this gorgeous female was finding her draped over a fallen over tree trunk. Someone had mentioned that Boulders had made a kill and lost it almost immediately to a clan of hyenas. This commotion summoned the curious Tisela. Realising that she would not be able to join in on the feast, she watched from a safe distance and simply relaxed for the remainder of the evening.
I have had the privilege to spend a considerable amount of time with Tisela and Hlambela since they were born around July 2018. Although this little lady can have quite the fighting spirit in her, thanks to her mom Boulders, she often comes across as far too mature for her age. This may be due to the relaxed nature of her father, Ravenscourt. I have only seen Tisela riled up on two occasions. The first was when she was around eight months old and a hyena grabbed one of her mongoose kills. The feisty feline rushed in and grabbed the kill from the hyena without even flinching. She scurried back up a tree with her reclaimed prize, looking down on the hyena who was more than triple her size.
One other time I saw Tisela loaded with energy was during lockdown 2020 when she hopelessly chased after two squirrels stranded up a tree. The startled squirrels literally ran circles around her.
Most of the time, Tisela has a very reserved nature and will casually watch you as you marvel at her beauty. Once she has had enough attention she will simply look away and show her disinterest in you.
Near or far, the sound of male lions roaring is sure to get you well excited for your safari adventure.
The Tumbela male lions have firmly claimed their spot in the western section of the Sabi Sand Game Reserve. The three brothers wasted no time figuring out who might be ruling the area. They quickly swooped in and sniffed out the Othawa lion pride. It has been an exciting few months watching these boys settle in and grow up.
When they arrived, one could only just see the manes of these male lions. Over the last few months they have grown a considerable amount of hair and are quickly showing signs of maturity.
The Tumbela coalition is also highly successful at hunting and they won’t hesitate to take down a buffalo for dinner. A couple of weeks ago, one of the lighter maned brothers had a nasty scuffle with a buffalo. It seems that he has injured one of his legs. For the first couple of weeks he could not apply any pressure to the foot and was seen limping around.
This injury set the individual back slightly. Often the other two Tumbela brothers would walk way ahead of him, as the injured brother struggled to keep up. The lone male would hang back for a few days at a time, sometimes managing to hang around with the Othawa pride. This would at least ensure that he gets a substantial meal.
Not being able to feed as frequently as his siblings has resulted in a slight loss of condition. Although he is taking strain, he does manage to relocate his two brothers after a few days. As time heals all wounds, it looks as if he is starting to pressure on his foot again. His pace is still slow, but he is definitely on the mend.
The Tumbela lions have been mating with the Othawa lionesses over the course of the summer season. There are claims that the younger adult female is pregnant. I eagerly look forward to welcoming new lion cubs to the area.
With an adjustment to the “new normal” and a lot of gratitude practices being observed, I would like to share one of the things that I am truly grateful for – My Backyard.
I am in a very fortunate position to be able to call South Africa’s bushveld home. This will be my fifth year living and working in some of the private game reserves that form part of the Greater Kruger National Park structure.
A lot of time has been spent in backyards over the last few months and I wanted to reflect on some of the magical moments that I have experienced from my backyard.
I usually rise before the sun. I will open my backdoor and stand outside, feel the cool morning air and take in the silence. After some time things start coming to life. Some things that I enjoy hearing is a confusion of guinea fowl (one of my favourite collective nouns) chattering away somewhere around camp. Of the smaller animas I would notice first are tree squirrels that dash around my backyard, scrambling for fallen marula fruit or tree seeds that may have dropped to the ground. I may even notice a flash of blue or orange as rainbow skinks whip their colourful tails when they run around hoping to grab some insects on the ground.
For a few weeks I would have the dominant male leopard, Ravenscourt, march past my room just before my morning alarm would ring. He would walk past my door and give a rasping territorial call at 04:20AM. One morning, at pretty much the same time, I had the biggest surprise of my life. I heard leopard activity in my backyard, but it was not the usual territory call. This was something else. In my sleepy state I managed to put two and two together. This obscure sound was definitely that of mating leopards. I woke up, jumped up in a flash and ran to my door. As I opened it and peeked outside, I saw two leopards finishing their mating ritual just a few meters away from me. The pair gave me a quick glance and moved off on their usual patrol route.
Nyala and bushbuck are some of the antelope species that frequent my back yard the most. Apart from the grassy section, the bush can get extremely thick in the summer months. These antelope usualy feed on the edge of the tree line. This season we have already received more than our seasonal average.
A lot of people tell me that living in the bush is far too nerve-wracking or simply just too scary for them. What I have learned is that as long as you know how to read the signs of the bush and always watch your back, you should make it out okay. One afternoon I was busy digging out grass outside our rooms as we were going to put up a small wall and braai area. After clearing out most of the grass I decided to take a quick break. I stood up and had a good stretch. I looked up and saw a monkey sitting on the roof. As I was looking at it I saw the monkey’s face tense up in sheer horror. I immediately turned around to face the bush. Before I could even turn around an impala bolted a few meters away from me. I immediately thought “what on earth is coming behind the impala”. Out of the thicket an African Wild Dog came rushing by. The canine was so focused on the impala and chasing at such a high speed, I doubt the wild dog even caught a glimpse of me. I called it a day, packed away my shovel and went back inside.
I consider myself extremely lucky to be able to witness and experience all these moments literally outside my room on a fairly regular basis. I will continue this post in a follow up post and share some more moments of my magical backyard safari.
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One of my favourite moments in the bush is when I take guests out on drive and as we round a bend we are greeted with one of the most graceful and elegant animals in the African bush.
To many people the giraffe is one of the most fascinating animals that one may come across while on safari. It also happens to be one of the most requested animals to see while roaming around the savannas.
Every giraffe has a unique coat pattern just like a fingerprint. I have seen great colour variations ranging from extremely light coloured giraffe to ones that are so dark, they appear black in colour.
One experience that I truly enjoy is finding some giraffe while on bush walk. Giraffe are incredibly inquisitive animals. If you are lucky enough to find some while on a walk, their first reaction will be to stop and stare at you. They want to ascertain whether you are a predator or up to no good. They will stand tall, focusing their full attention on you, ensuring that they do not lose sight of you. If the situation and immediate environment allows for it, I might approach a little closer and then take a seat on the ground. With their curiosity climbing, the giraffe may approach nearer to investigate what you are up to now. Once they are at a comfortable distance from you it feels as if these giants are towering above you.
Of all the collective nouns for animals, giraffe must take the cake for the most creative of the lot. A stationary group of giraffe are called a tower of giraffe. As the group starts walking they are referred to as a journey of giraffe. As soon as they take flight and start to run, they are called a kaleidoscope of giraffe.
I do not think it matters whether it is your first wild giraffe encounter or your hundredth, these animals remain one of the most iconic and keystone animals in the African bush.
Always alert and always prepared, a phrase I would use to sum up most of my leopard encounters.
I often find myself in the company of leopards, watching them casually walking down a gravel road marking their territories or see them resting in the shade, simply minding their own business. Then all of sudden something will grab their attention.
This might happen in many ways. Either another animal will walk within view of the leopard or simply enter the immediate environment totally unaware of the leopard’s presence. Other times the leopard might pick up sounds of nearby impala rutting, a change in the wind presenting the scent of a warthog grazing nearby. Whichever clues are presented, a leopard will often go and investigate.
One morning I was fortunate to spend time with a young male leopard called Tavangumi. As always, he was simply strolling around and seemed to have his bearings fixed on a certain direction.
As he neared a small thicket, something caught his eye. He paused, pointed all his senses in the direction of the movement and focused all his attention on the tree line.
What had he spotted? Was it another predator? Was it a potential meal? Tavangumi approached cautiously, yet swiftly at the same time.
At first I could not see what caught his attention. He would not drop his gaze so I knew it would be worth sticking it out and see what was hidden behind thick green foliage. I eventually got a gap between the leaves and grabbed a glimpse of orange.
The thickets formed little pockets, with gaps just too large to allow the leopard to move stealthily between the trees. Tavangumi made an attempt to stalk ever closer, risking a gap to hone in on his prey.
All eyes and ears were solely focused on the impala. By now I was sure that the leopard would be successful with his hunt. He was only a couple of pounces away from the antelope. Tavangumi managed to creep up to the closet pocket of trees. He now had no moves left to edge closer to the impala. His options from here were either go big or go home.
Before Tavangumi could even make another decision, the impala caught a whiff of the predator. The impala let out a lively alarm call. Game over for Tavangumi. His position had been discovered and the upper hand was gone.
Tavangumi sat up, revealing his position. The impala kept alarm calling while keeping a watchful eye on the leopard. The leopard got up and moved out of the area. I could nearly see the anguish and frustration written on his face.
As the summer rains get heavier and heavier, the bush seems to change on a weekly basis. Each week I notice something that was not there the week before. The air is currently filled with the scent of flowering silver cluster leaf trees. This tree presents a unique yet unpleasant odour similar to that of smelly socks.
Luckily we do not only rely on our sense of smell and we get to enjoy many of our other senses while out on safari. Summer time is very exciting for one big reason. It is the season where many animals have their babies. Sometimes the cuteness is too hard to bear and I would like to share some of these moments.
Within a few days after the first summer rains the bush will burst with greenery. This brings much welcomed relief for many of the grazers and browsers. This also allows the newborns a head start in life.
The larger herbivores like elephants and rhinos have the ability to move large distances and consume large volumes of food. They will often have babies before and after the green season.
Although the various predators do not rely on the green grassy growth, they still take full advantage of this short season. Hunting for food becomes such an easy task. This in turn allows them to bulk up quickly and produce the necessary milk for their cubs or pups that are tucked away in the safety of their various dens.
It is no doubt that I have witnessed countless top-class sightings in the bush. Admittedly, many of these happened without even having to go searching too far. However, there are days when I have to put in a considerable effort to track down what I’m hoping to find.
The best way to track an animal is to head off to the exact spot it was last seen. Animals do not fly, so following the footprints should eventually take you to the new location of the animal. Sometimes this is easier said than done. When an animal walks down a dirt road, providing the road conditions are clear, it will leave very obvious directional tracks. As soon as that animal leaves the road and moves through a thicket or grassland, the whole situation changes. What clues does one look for now?
Sometimes the animal may leave other clues like fresh scat or dung, territorial scent markings, mud from a recent mud bath or potentially a bloody trail if it had been hunting. Sometimes one might get audio from the animal in question or warning calls from other animals that may have spotted a predator.
I spent a late afternoon trying to track down a cheetah that had been left lying next to a road earlier that morning. It was a scorching hot day, so my thoughts were that the feline would not be too far from the last spot. I headed straight to the area. Nothing was to be found. My tracker and I picked up some tracks of where the cheetah had moved around. It seemed as if it was deliberately dancing around to confuse us. Did this mean it had gone hunting during the heat of the day? Had it gone to search for water? Was it chased off by a larger predator?
Sometimes simply knowing the lay of the land and thinking where an animal might head off to next may work in your favour. As the circling tracks were leading us nowhere I took a different approach. I knew that there was a large clearing not far away, just across from a small waterhole. I decided to head off in that direction, hoping for the best.
In the middle of the clearing my tracker spotted something lying in the grass. We approached and with uncontainable smiles we found the cheetah. As we got closer we could see it panting frantically.
This cheetah had indeed made an impala kill during the heat of the day. The feast had already begun. The cheetah took some shade and managed to scan the surrounding clearings while trying to deal with its bulging belly.
The sun was hanging low on the horizon and this meant one thing for the cheetah. A keen eye would need to be kept as nocturnal predators would soon be lurking around. Before I could even finish thinking about whether a hyena would rock up or not, a rather young hyena arrived. It had obviously gone scouting as the temperature dropped. It spotted the cheetah from around fifty meters away. The hyena paused, assessed the situation and decided it was time to feast.
The young hyena rushed in, all guns blazing. The cheetah shot up in a flash, gave a highly disgusted hiss and spent no time lingering around the carcass.
Even though the hyena was still really young, the cheetah knows that one quick bite from the hyena could cause major damage and render it unable to hunt again. The cheetah already had a full belly and decided that the risk was not greater than the reward.
The hungry hyena wasted no time tucking into the impala carcass. Although he went scouting alone, there could be other clan members nearby and they would not hesitate to swoop in and steal an easy meal. I witnessed yet again how efficiently these hyenas are at ripping a carcass to shreds within a matter of a few minutes. The cheetah decided to call it quits all together. He moved out of the area and the hyena managed to feast in peace and quiet.
A question I get asked on a regular basis is “how often do you see leopards in trees”. This made me reflect on all my favourite sightings of leopards in trees and the various scenarios that played out.
There are various reasons why leopards might climb up trees. Some of these factors depend on the amount of predator pressure that the leopards may face. Leopards often get harassed by either hyenas or lions and will seek out a tree to climb if one is nearby.
Depending on the area of the respective leopards, some leopards may simply eat their meals on the ground. If it looks as if another predator is storming in to steal the meal, the leopard could hoist the kill with a swift leap up a sturdy, mature tree.
I remember spending an entire, sweltering hot, afternoon game drive with this leopard enjoying her meal. The sun eventually set and the deepest blue sky developed just before darkness descended, creating a wonderful contrast for this image.
Of all my sightings in the Kruger National Park, this is still my only one of a leopard in a tree with a kill. It was a real treat turning the corner on a lonely dirt road one morning and finding this female tucking into an impala.
This was the first sighting that I had of this youngster. The mother had made a kill and the young son would growl at mom each time she dare came close to the kill.
Hands down one of the scariest looking male leopards that I have ever come across. This male had deep-set, piercing eyes and a nasty attitude. Just one look from this guy always sent shivers down my spine.
Mothers may leave their cubs in the safety of the tree tops while they are out hunting. The cubs are also more than capable of climbing trees from a very young age.
A young cub would not take its eyes and ears off of a clan of hyenas scurrying about the base of the tree. It seemed to have the deepest fascination in the hyenas below.
One of the most playful leopard cubs that I have spent time with. The cub was resting deep in a heavily foliaged tree. After some time, the cub tip toed along a branch which pointed in my direction and came to investigate what I was doing there.
My favourite female leopard, named Basile, has the worst luck when raising cubs and I was rooting hard for this cub to survive. Of all the identification spot patterns that I have seen, this cub had a unique 1:1 whisker spot pattern. This pattern represents the single spots on the top row of the left and right whisker lines. This was the last sighting that I had of this interesting cub before it too did not make it.
I developed a special love for this cub, the last litter from Basile. I watched Basile enter a small cave at the back of our lodge the evening before this cub was born. She kept the cubs hidden for about two weeks and then moved the cubs right before Christmas, passing by a field camera trap.
Usually when cubs are born we give them a few weeks to acclimatize to their new environment. I was lucky enough to find Basile moving her new litter a few days after this settling in period was over. The cubs posed on the fallen tree and mesmerized me with large, innocent eyes.
When leopards are roaming through their terriorty or actively hunting, one may find them climbing up a tree in order to have a better vantage point.
I remember tracking this leopard for over two hours one winter’s morning. The tracks eventually led my tracker and I in circles. We simply could not put the puzzle together. We were about to give up. My tracker instructed me to collect the vehicle and come back to fetch him. I walked a few paces ahead of him and heard a whistle coming from my tracker. I stopped and looked back at him. He was smiling victoriously while laughing at himself and pointed up at a tree a few meters away from us. Success!
One of the most relaxed and successful female leopards I have come across, scans the area across a thick drainage line, spotting some impala in the distance. She made her way towards the impala. It was nearly impossible to follow her through the thickets, but after much patience I was rewarded with seeing a successful hunt.
A heart breaking moment witnessing this mother leopard lying on this fallen tree calling hopelessly for about an hour for her missing cub. The cub was missing for a week already and I assume that baboons got hold of the cub when mom went out hunting that day.
If there was one leopard that exudes confidence, it would be this beauty. I found her far out of her territorial boundary for a few days. She moved through this new area as if she already owned it. She took a break and rested in this tree. She would scan the surrounding land to see who dare walk through her newly claimed area.
I do not get to spend a lot of time with this female leopard. She has good days and bad days. On bad days she will simply slink away into thick grass when she hears you approach. On a good day, especially when she is up a tree, she will give you all the time in the world. Although it is tricky to get great images of this female, I feel she is the most photogenic of all the female leopards in my area.
Turns out that I have seen a great deal of leopards in trees and I thoroughly enjoyed reflecting on all these magnificent memories.