It’s not tracking (although this is certainly effective).
It’s not staking out a waterhole.
It’s not heading out in the middle of the night with a spotlight, hoping to see the eye shine of a feline predator reflected back at you.
No, the best way to find the big cats is simply to look at birds.
Now this may not sound overly exciting to many of you. Not everyone is a birder, and we realise that the Big 5 – its predatory members especially – are the main drawcard for the ardent safari-goer. Yet it is often in the observation of the smaller members of the bush, and in particular the patience and the quiet that goes with that observation, that the clues are discovered that lead you to the predator sightings.
Ask any experienced ranger or tracker, and they’ll tell you that it is your ears far more than your eyes that will keep you out of trouble in the African wilderness; a branch snapping may indicate elephants up ahead; oxpeckers calling and then descending probably point the way to where a buffalo is hiding in the thick vegetation. And it is your ears – that you can only really use when the safari vehicle is switched off – that will hear the calls of the big cats or the alarm calls that point towards them.
There is a wide array of both mammals and birds the take fright when they see a leopard or lion approaching, and they will react accordingly by snorting, barking, or giving off some sort of auditory display to warn their con-specifics of the presence of danger. It is these alarm calls specifically that experienced guides are listening for a lot of the time when on safari, as they can be incredibly reliable in the search for the high profile creatures.
And it is in the simple act of switching off the car to look at a bird that the quietness is to be found that will reveal these audible cues. Simply racing around in the vehicle looking for tracks and the animals themselves is the surest way to delay their ultimate discovery. So slow down, take the pressure off your guide, and work with the bush.
The rest of the wildlife out there have far more acute senses than us humans, so are far more likely to spot a predator moving past. Monkeys with a great view from the treetops will chatter incessantly when they spot a leopard slinking through the undergrowth. Kudus will give off a booming bark when they catch sight of a lion stalking them. And even little squirrels will kick up a fuss and a heck of a chatter when danger approaches. The more you slow down to look at the small stuff, the more of the big stuff you will ultimately find.
So even if animals of the avian variety are not your particular cup of tea, let your guide do his or her thing when pointing them out to you. Something large and feline might be just around the corner as a result…