Long-tailed Macaques

Long-tailed Macaques
Long-tailed Macaque (Macaca fascicularis)

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Searching for leopards

The Leopard (Panthera pardus) is considered by many the perfect feline, the quintessential cat, and with good reason; leopards combine the power and strength of the greater cats with the grace and agility of the smaller members of their family.  They are the most widespread wild feline in the world, and although their range has been severely reduced in the last century, they still live throughout Africa, Asia and the Middle East in a wide variety of habitats, outnumbering all other large cats.

Their versatility is legendary. They can survive on surprisingly small prey in areas where large game has been eliminated, and are so adept at taking advantage of even the slightest cover that they can be found deep within urban areas, often specializing in hunting livestock and domestic dogs and cats. Unfortunately, in these situations attacks on people may also occur. In fact, some of the most notorious man-eaters in recorded history have been leopards.

Female leopard with grown cub, Timbavati Reserve, South Africa.

Although leopards are generally secretive and very difficult to see, in a few areas they have become relatively tolerant of humans and vehicles. The two most reliable places in the World to see and photograph leopards today seem to be Sri Lanka and South Africa. Large game reserves in Kenya, Tanzania and Botswana also offer good chances, although, as I can attest, it is perfectly possible to do a safari in Kenya and see no leopards at all; I didn't see my first, a female resting on a tree, until my second visit to Kenya, in 2002 (you can read a brief trip report here).

The island country of Sri Lanka has the advantage of leopards being the top predator there, so they are less cautious and elusive than in other areas, where they have to be constantly alert for lions, tigers, or hyenas; Sri Lanka's Yala National Park is said to offer almost guaranteed sightings of Leopard, so much so that most visitors hoping to see it book two nights there at most. However, I was led by an expert guide, and it took me four days to find one. As with anything related to wild animal sightings luck plays a major part, but this seems to be especially true with leopards.

 Young male leopard on a tree, Timbavati Reserve, South Africa.

As it is often the case with wildlife, no matter how many photos or documentary footage you may have previously watched; nothing really prepares you for the first close encounter with a large predator, especially from an open-top vehicle with no real physical barrier between you and the animal. Here's an excerpt from my wife's diary on our trip to Sri Lanka, where she saw her first wild leopard in Yala National Park:

'I guess the most important part about Yala is the anticipation, yet smug sense of entitlement we all felt before leaving. Seeing a Leopard was likely the raison d'etre for the trip, apart of course from finishing my thesis (she had just finished working on her PhD at the time). So, it was with wide eyes and a sense of adventure that we left the hotel that morning for our nine hour journey to Yala National Park. Yala was full of leopards, and we were about to get some car-skimming cat shots.

…If not by the first morning, it would happen by the second afternoon. Obviously.

(...) Before starting the trip, Ignacio had asked me countless times how excited I was to see The Leopard. I was excited, but I was also delighted with the prospects of beaches, suntans, no thesis, more beaches, less thesis and did I mention… more suntans? Perhaps my priorities were a little out of whack with regard to the Wildlife component of the trip.  Beaches came at the end of the trip, but so convinved was I that we would find a leopard on the first day, that I thought we might be able to do a quick side trip to do some surfing or snorkeling before long. Let me repeat: assured by smug sense of entitlement I really had not a care in the world. Leopards. Click. Beach. Hooray!

 A glimpse through the bushes, Yala National Park, Sri Lanka.

I was curious about leopards, about predators in general, and after our experiences in Africa I was expecting (at the very least) a full behavioral display. Without exaggeration, I truly thought we would stumble upon leopards mating, playing, and- of course, of course- hunting. After all Yala was promised to be even more saturated with leopards than Etosha with lions, so it was a quick journey, no?

So. Let me interject at this point. Animals do not respond to your beach schedule. Even less so, when there is a pre emptive conclusion that they will pose in behavior shots for you. And the trip was starting to feel less Hawaii 5-0 and a lot more David Attenborough, minus the soothing voice. To begin, our transportation within Yala was distinctly different than any safari I had previously experienced. We were in vintage land rovers, and the roads were horrendous. The potholes made for a very nice introduction between my kidneys and my ribs and after the novelty wore off, the discomfort was just kind of…dusty. Dust, bumps, silenced eye-peeling. We were going to find that animal.

After four days of this routine, it was starting to feel eerily planned that we were not seeing any leopards. We started to eat meals in silence, the elephant in the room (a terrible pun, since indeed there were quite a few Asian Elephants) being the utter lack of leopard. Not a tail, not a toe. Foot prints don’t count.

We loaded all of the camera equipment back into the land rover and headed out on Drive Number 4 in search of the elusive leopard. Of course we were going to find it.

  Young female, Yala National Park, Sri Lanka.

Statistically, and I would write that, I’m not sure if it’s possible to be in Yala for four full game drives and not even see a leopard- not even with binoculars (!), but that was our reality. We came back, again, with nothing. That night we started to panic. As nice as the peacock display shots were, and as exotic as the hornbills were, they were not leopards. They were not predators. They didn’t even have fur—let alone the stuff with spots on it!  Ignacio and I heaved the camera equipment back into the room. That 800 mm lens was making itself a real nuisance at this point- it all felt like a silly costume. The beige clothing. The camera that sat unused. What was it all for? Not to mention the 300 and 24-105, the laptops, and all the other gear that is a part of this incredible hobby.

´This is incredible. Four full game rides at Yala, and not a single leopard.´

So. We ate in virtual silence, until it was broken:

‘We are going to be the poor bastards that come to this Park, and don´t even see a single leopard.’ I gave my fiancé a look of empathy and a kind of mini apology for dragging him so far, only to see so little.

The next morning was our last game drive. Oh, the horrible frustration. Or maybe even humiliation, that we had come all the way to Sri Lanka, and not even glimpsed at this stupid cat.

… 8.30 am, and nothing. We ate breakfast in silence.

It was now 9.30, and still nothing.

Part of the problem was the concentration of jeeps. Yala was absolutely heaving with cars—they were everywhere. Leopards are decidedly un-lion like. They are not social, they do not hunt in prides, and they certainly do not like attention. I think the word is ´secretive´, or ´shy´. I was thinking more along the lines of ‘incredibly selfish and spiteful’ at this point, but no matter. It was almost time to turn around and go back home, after all, we had been at it since 5.30, and it was now 9.45…

 Young female, Yala National Park, Sri Lanka.

‘Leopard!! Leopard!!!¨ I hissed at the driver. I had seen the first leopard, and it was just laying there, in the middle of the sun, on a rock. Laying!!! Posing!!! Not a care in the world.

We inched the Land Rover back, careful not to disturb the animal, and Ignacio grabbed the 300mm lens.

It was there. Less than 10 meters away! It was close enough for snapshots, and we were the ONLY people who had found it. We were alone. I could see the soft black spots that marked her face, and most critically, the black eyeliner that decorated the greenish eyes.
Finding her was a defining moment for the trip– all the hours of waiting, the weeks in preparation, and now here she was. Wildlife photography in many ways is like gambling– you have no idea of the outcome, just that it feels great when you win. It really hardly ever works out that you get the Big Pay Out as you might like it to happen. We came home with reels of leopard photos.

 Young female, Yala National Park, Sri Lanka.

Seeing the leopard totally changed my perspective on wildlife photography. Instead of a gambling game with badly staked odds, it became an infinitely rewarding pursuit, marked by slightly unknown temporal constraints. Hopefully, the temporal constraints won’t grow to be longer. Everyone should have an encounter with animals like this, should the opportunity arise. The big question, of course, is for how long even four day waits will be available. It’s clear that animals, like everything else, are disappearing faster than we’d like.'

That afternoon we saw a big male, a one-eyed veteran of many battles, resting on a tree. It was a superb animal, that soon attracted what seemed like a hundred cars, creating a "game jam" so typical of large national parks, and making our morning experience feel even more special.

The big one-eyed male at Yala National Park, Sri Lanka.

In May 2012 Margi and I were invited to our friend Adam Riley's wedding in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. Adam and I have been friends since we met in Uganda, in 2005, and I have made several birding and photographic trips organized by his company (Sri Lanka among them); he is the owner and managing director of Rockjumper Birding Tours, and has also co-founded its sister companies Indri and Oryx Photographic Expeditions. After the wedding, we took the opportunity to organize a photographic trip to two of the most famed and reliable reserves in South Africa for leopard: Sabi Sand and Timbavati. Sabi Sand is the oldest private game reserve in South Africa, and a pioneering model for wildlife tourism. It is a 65,000 ha association of landowners, with no fences and an open 50-km border with Kruger National Park. The landscape in both areas is mostly comprised of different types of woodland, and apart from being famous for their leopards, offer great viewing opportunities of Lion, Buffalo, Elephant, White Rhino, and a wide variety of ungulates, of which Impala is the most common. Timbavati has the bonus of a chance for Wild Dog and the famous white lions, both of which we missed; dogs are nomadic and move constantly except when breeding, and the white lions are just a few, over a very large area.

 Margi with one of the open-top vehicles used in Sabi Sand and Timbavati.

There are several privately run lodges and safari operators in both reserves; their drivers and guides seem to know each other well, and the atmosphere is one of cooperation, with constant sharing of information through radio. It is possible to drive off-road within certain limits, and no more than two vehicles are allowed at a sighting, avoiding the "game-jams" so often experienced at Kruger and the East African national parks. Our guide, Marius Coetzee, is co-owner of Oryx and started his career as a guide at Leopard Hills, the lodge where we stayed in Sabi Sands. He is an award-winning South African photographer with a great knowledge of African wildlife in general and this area in particular. You can check his work at www.mariuscoetzee.com .

 Adult male next to the airstrip at Sabi Sand Reserve, South Africa.

May is probably not the best time of the year for visiting the South African bush; there had been heavy rains right before our arrival, and the grass was very long everywhere, making sightings difficult and photography often frustrating. However, it is a testament to the quality of these reserves and their guides that in just 8 days we saw ten individual leopards, and enjoyed some excellent photo opportunities. We followed the usual safari routine: game drives early in the morning and again in the afternoon until sunset, with long resting periods in the middle of the day. At Sabi Sand, Marius did a great job of driving the vehicle himself, expertly aided by a local tracker. The territories of individual leopards are usually well known by local rangers, and radio communication between vehicles is really effective. Leopards have been closely studied at Sabi Sand for years, and many have become habituated to being followed by vehicles, to the point of completely ignoring a big Land Rover noisily revving a few meters away. They seem totally oblivious of the people in the cars, even the trackers who sit rather precariously on a little seat on the vehicle's hood. The one warning visitors are given: don't stand up inside the open-top car. Wild animals seem to consider the vehicle and its occupants as a whole, and standing up might alter that perception.

 Drinking leopard with a puncture wound in the shoulder, Sabi Sand Reserve, South Africa.

Like most wild predators, leopards lead difficult, brutal and often short lives. Almost every one we saw bore scars or even open wounds. Rangers and guides get to know many individual leopards within their reserves, and more often than not their life stories end in violent death. Lions kill many cubs and even adults; adult males fight for territories and mating rights, and even a minor injury can mean a disability to hunt and lead to starvation. Females have to not only fend for themselves, but keep their cubs fed and safe from predators and also adult male leopards. At Leopard Hills Lodge, I was surprised to realize that many photos covering a whole wall were of the same specimen: a very well-known female who for several years chose the lodge's rocky grounds to raise her cubs. She was finally pushed out of the reserve by an aggressive male, and ended up being shot at a bordering village.

Female leopard with grown cub, Timbavati Reserve, South Africa.

The fact that females raising cubs have to spend so much time out hunting may explain in part why most leopard sightings and photographs are of females; out of the ten leopards we saw, seven were female, one with a male grown cub. Hunting for wild prey is hard work; even in dense bushy terrain like Sabi Sand and Timbavati, which favors the leopard's ambush style of hunting, success rates are about 40%, dropping to 20% when they hunt during daylight hours. Impala, leopard's most frequent prey in the area, are so numerous for a reason: they are very hard to catch. 

Female leopard with Impala kill, Timbavati Reserve, South Africa.

We were very lucky to enjoy  great views of a female and her grown and rather shy cub for a few minutes, but my personal favorite was a full-grown male that showed up just before sunrise by the airstrip near Leopard Hills Lodge at Sabi Sand. Big males are always a bonus, but this one was just spectacular, a superb mix of power and elegance, definitely one of the most impressive wild animals I've seen. We followed him for almost an hour, with the early morning sun providing some stunning light, until he disappeared in the long grass.

 The big male at Sabi Sand.

Oryx asked us for some feedback on the trip so they can use it as reference; here's what I wrote:

As for the photographic side: Leopard Hills (Sabi Sands) and King's Camp (Timbavati) rank among the best wildlife watching and photography places have experienced, not only in Africa but in the World. The abundance of Leopard and the quality of the sightings is just amazing, even though we were in the "long grass" season. Drivers and trackers do a fantastic job, and the avoidance of "game jams" thanks to the policy of only two vehicles allowed at a sighting is a great advantage. Leopard is clearly the main attraction at Timbavati, but there were great sightings of Buffalo, Elephant and White Rhino. We didn't do so great with Lion, but did get a few decent shots nonetheless.  In eight full days between the two reserves, we didn't have a single dull drive.

Accommodation and all the infrastructure around King's Camp is just wonderful. The rooms are a delight, food excellent, very nice birds around the gardens, great bar and library, and some of the very best service I've experienced anywhere. We were pampered in every way imaginable.

Organization by Oryx was faultless. It really felt like we were getting the best of everything, even when compared to other visitors, and Marius' excellent relationship with apparently every ranger and tracker in the reserves was a big bonus, making communication with other vehicles especially productive. His extensive bush experience and photographic sense added a lot of value to the trip.

As a wildlife enthusiast and photographer who has been around, I certainly recommend King's Camp and Timbavati as a superb, rewarding and very productive destination. I hope I find the time to go back some time soon.

 This beautiful female had a flap of loose skin in her jaw, likely the result of a fight. Sabi Sand Reserve, South Africa.

And here's Margi's contribution, in case mine didn't include enough superlatives::

I'm not sure if I can adequately express my enthusiasm for our South African trip. Sharing time with some of the most exotic animals on the planet will continue to be one of my most treasured memories. What I loved most, was the proximity and intensity of the experience with leopards. Although I am not a wildlife photographer, I am an adrenaline junkie, and hearing the hiss or purr of an adult leopard (or in your case, cub!!) is one of the most exciting times I can remember.

The excitement of stalking leopards with walkie-talkies and the incredible open top Land Rovers is something that I won't soon forget.

In my most spectacular day dreams, I could not have thought up lodges like King's Camp or Leopard Hills. The food is absolutely exceptional- so much so that I made a point of going to the gym every day on holiday. I continue to give rave reviews of the massage I had at Leopard Hills, which remains the best back rub I've had in my life. Brr. I am still thinking about it! The interior of each room is so unique and luxurious it would feel like a pity to leave for the game drives, had they not been so mind- bendingly exciting. Even as a non photographer, I was up fifteen minutes early before each drive, and thinking about the drive on each evening after. The feeling is pure Hemingway, minus the kind of creepy undertones. Really, I have never had such an awesome adventure, and I am still looking back with the fondest of memories.

Oryx put together a trip that was virtually bespoken to both my husband's and my tastes. We were able to share an adventure together, and this was possibly the best trip we have taken together. This was achieved by a seamless set of logistical operations, not a hint of a problem with travel, accommodation, food, or even photography opportunities. Mother Nature may be unpredictable, but Oryx seems to have managed a way to make her a little happier.

Gah. That line is SO MUCH FROMAGE, however...

 Female leopard, Timbavati Reserve, South Africa.

We want to thank Adam and Felicity Riley, and their families, for inviting us to their wedding and for their hospitality during our stay; we had a really great time. 

And to Marius and Kirsty at Oryx for a faultless organization.

To see more images from this trip, visit my photography website at www.iyufera.com