Lurking with leopards in Sabi

2015-03-23 09:21 - Scott Ramsay
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It seemed too good to be true. The female leopard and her cub were no more than two metres from our game-viewing vehicle. They were playing in the tall summer grass, lush from recent rains.

Both their tummies were fat from feeding on a recent impala kill, which lay at the base of a nearby tree. After mom got tired of playing, she lay down in the shade. The 6-month old male cub came and flopped down on top of her.

She started licking his bloody face, her long sandpapery tongue washing behind his ears. He grimaced and moaned, as any young boy would do when forced to have a bath.

For my guide Eve Wood-Hill and tracker Donald Themba this was all in a day’s work. The Sabi Sands Game Reserve in the greater Kruger National Park is world-renowned for spectacular leopard sightings.

“This happens all the time here,” Eve told me. “Especially with this particular mom and cub. They don’t mind us being here at all.”

I’ve spent several years travelling to wildlife areas and protected places in Southern Africa, and not once have I experienced such an intimate leopard encounter. I’ve seen a lot of leopards, in Mana Pools in Zimbabwe, in the Okavango Delta in Botswana, and the Kgalagadi and Kruger National Park in South Africa, but usually the leopards are fleeting phantoms. On those rare occasions when the leopard doesn’t move away quickly, it has almost always kept its distance.

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Over the next few days in Sabi Sands, we encountered this mom and her cub regularly. Every time they were comfortable in close proximity to our vehicle. They seemed to behave normally, doing everything that leopards do: eating, playing, arguing, grooming, stalking, drinking and sleeping.

On one occasion, when the sun climbed into the sky, they came even closer and lay in the shade of the vehicle, looking at us as if it say: “Do you mind if we lie next to you?”

Since the 1960s there has been no hunting in the Sabi Sands. Several generations of leopards have never heard a gun shot, and never encountered a human who poses a threat to them.

As a private game reserve, Sabi Sands comprises several properties joined together without fences. Luxurious lodges host mostly wealthy international visitors. Each lodge conducts guided game drives every morning and evening.

Importantly, unlike in Kruger itself, guides are allowed to drive their guests off road. Leopards (and other animals) are used to the close proximity of vehicles and human voices.

There are no fences between Sabi Sands and the Kruger National Park, so animals are able to move as they wish over more than 2 million hectares. The leopards, however, are territorial and generally stick to their chosen domain. Sabi Sands has some of the best leopard habitat in southern Africa, with several streams and rivers running through the reserve.

The prohibition on hunting and the prime riparian habitat makes for an intoxicating wildlife experience. As the website states: “Sabi Sands is the best place in the world for a safari.”

But this is an island of excellence within a continent where leopards are forced to remain secretive and aloof.

For more than two centuries leopards have been hunted and persecuted in Africa. Colonial hunters shot thousands of them for sport.

Then, during the 1950s and 60s, about 60 000 leopards were killed every year to supply the fur trade, according to researcher Dr. Guy Balme of Panthera.

In the 1980s leopards were listed on CITES Appendix 1, receiving the highest protection, which brought an end to the fur trade. But CITES still allows for 2 000 leopards to be hunted for sport across 13 African states every year. In South Africa, 150 leopards can be shot, but in Tanzania and Zimbabwe, 500 leopards are on quota.

Leopards are also revered by African cultures, especially the Zulu people. This reverence has a dark side. The Shembe worshippers of the Nazereth Baptist Church consider the leopard as their totem animal, and most members wear leopard skins, which encourages poaching and hunting.

WATCH: Two leopards kill and fight over a warthog

“There are close to a million members of the Shembe religion,” Dr. Balme explained. “Most of them like their leopard skins.”

But the biggest cause of the leopard’s decline is the destruction and transformation of natural habitat outside protected areas.

“We have accurate data that indicates leopards have disappeared from 40% of their original range in Africa,” Dr. Balme said.

In South Africa, 68 per cent of their natural habitat lies outside protected areas. This causes conflict with farmers, especially game ranchers who breed high-value antelope like black impala, sable and roan. These make easy targets for leopards, but a single black impala can be worth R150 000.

“If you’re a game farmer and a leopard kills your black impala, you’re likely to be very angry.”

Despite these challenges, leopards are still resilient and of all the big predators, they are doing better than lions and cheetahs.

“They are a highly adaptable animal, occurring in deserts, rain forests, mountains and savanna,” Dr. Balme explained. “They occur all the way from the Western Cape mountains across much of Africa, into the Middle East, tropical Asia and up into the Ural mountains of Russia.”

A frozen leopard was once found in a glacier on Mount Kilimanjaro, 4 500 metres above sea level.

They also have a cosmopolitan diet, feeding on more than 90 species of prey. Remarkable records include a 70kg male leopard hunting and killing a 1 000kg eland in the Serengeti. While a leopard could catch and eat a dung beetle one day, the next day it could be hunting a young elephant, as was recorded once in the Sabi Sands.

Finally they can also survive in close proximity to people. Unlike lions and cheetahs, leopards are often seen on the fringes of urban areas in Africa. In 1990 a female leopard was found raising two cubs in Kampala railway station in Uganda. They were only detected when the cubs started killing the local stray cats and dogs.

For now the closest you will get to a wild leopard in Africa is probably Sabi Sands Game Reserve. Although the private lodges are far too pricey for most people, charging between R4 000 and R8 000 per person per night, the luxury safaris provide ample funding for conservation. This business model provides a foundation for remarkable wildlife sightings.

As an invited guest of Sabi Sabi lodge and Notten’s Bush Camp, I was privileged for a few days to enter a wild world that seemed too good to be true in Africa. Here, in this little pocket of the continent, leopards live in harmony with people who respect and admire the photogenic predator, without killing them. For wildlife fans who can afford it, I think that’s worth the price of a luxury holiday.

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