In many ways, the leopard represents the African continent best.
Whilst the regal lion may hold the title of King of the Beasts, and the elephant’s great size render it the most impressive African mammal, it is the enigmatic nature of the leopard, and the mystery that surrounds it, that most adds to its allure as an animal to see on safari, and captures the essence of the African continent most effectively.
In large portions of Africa – and particularly in areas where human wildlife conflict has been a factor over the years – leopards can be hard to find. They are there, but remain invisible. Although they occupy almost every habitat from the mountains just outside Cape Town to the open deserts of the Sahara way to the north, for the most part they are unobserved creatures of the night.
Yet in a few wildlife reserves, leopards are eminently viewable. The big cats there have long realised that the game viewing vehicles do not represent a threat to them, and so allow them and the guests they contain into their daily lives.
Although there is no such thing as a guaranteed sighting, these are a few places that will give you your best chance of viewing leopards in the wild:
Sabi Sand Reserve, South Africa
Long-viewed as the epicentre of wildlife viewing in Southern Africa, a recent camera-trap survey by the Panthera Organisation firmly established this iconic reserve as containing the densest leopard population yet recorded on the African continent.
With a high availability of natural prey species and perfect habitat in which to hunt and raise cubs, the area boasts leopard numbers that around 12 per hundred square kilometres in the centre of the park.
A number of world-class lodges like Londolozi, Singita and Mala Mala have decades of experience showing guests the wonders of the area, and in particular the leopards. Experienced rangers are well versed in the habits and territorial movements of the resident individuals, and so it is in the Sabi Sands that we feel you have THE best chance of viewing leopards in the wild.
South Luangwa, Zambia
Although not as lauded as other contemporary reserves, the South Luangwa National Park has in fact been providing phenomenal game viewing for years. With the Luangwa River delivering a much-needed source of water during the dry season, the area is able to sustain healthy general game populations, and it is these antelope species – particularly puku and impala – that the local leopard population favours.
Riparian vegetation along the river and its many tributaries provides the perfect habitat for the leopards to slink through, and large evergreen trees provide safe refuges in which to hoist kills to keep them out of reach of hyenas.
Whilst better known for boasting the largest populations of lions and cheetahs in Africa, the Serengeti/Masai Mara ecosystem in East Africa has no shortage of leopards. Although sightings won’t be quite as regular as in other reserves, it is the setting here that creates the appeal around leopard viewing.
Wide open spaces, unimpeded Acacia woodland; wherever you see a leopard – and in particular photograph it – you are likely to get the sense of space that the greater habitat brings. Vistas like you can’t believe, with the seemingly endless plains of Africa stretched out around you. If you happen to be there during the migration, you will also have the background accompaniment of a million snorting wildebeest throughout the day.
Leopard or no leopard though, the East African grasslands are a wildlife experience like no other.
Our final recommended leopard-viewing destination is not what one would normally expect to be included in a list like this.
In fact until recently, it wasn’t really on the international radar as a place to see these beautiful cats.
But over the last couple of years, one or two leopards in particular in a small area called Laikipia in central Kenya, have captured the broader imagination of the safari community.
These are the mythical black leopards.
A rare recessive gene that codes for an excess of melanin – a dark pigment – results in an animal that is much darker than a normal individual. This is the black panther of legend. Black panthers can be any big cat from the Panthera genus – although they are essentially either leopards or jaguars – and contrary to popular belief they are not all black. One can still see the rosettes in their coats if you look closely.
A few individuals have been born recently in the Laikipia district, and although most of them are skittish and very hard to find, one or two individuals that inhabit the area near Laikipia Wilderness Camp have become accustomed to the presence of game drive vehicles, and spectacular photos like the above one by Will Burrard-Lucas are now possible.
Even without the viewing of this most special of leopards, Laikipia is a spectacular area to safari with its high number of unique species.
Leopards capture the idea of safari beautifully. They are on many safari-goers’ bucket lists, but many visitors to Africa entertain little hope of actually seeing them.
If they are an animal which you really to want to see though, we have a number of lodges we recommend highly to give you your best chance.
Get in touch through firstname.lastname@example.org, and let’s start planning your safari…