Updated: Dec 7, 2022
“Inkwe, inkwe!” came the excited static voice over the radio: someone, somewhere, had spotted a leopard. Despite being Africa’s most common cat, there is just something about leopards that beats all other sightings. Although abundant, these elusive creatures are notoriously difficult to find. Botswana’s Okavango Delta is a myriad of habitats, from ancient ebony forests to mophane scrub, wide open Savanna to marshland, in which a leopard simply melts into the background. While lions lounge in the shade of a termite mound for hours on end, leopards lurk in the canopies above and investigate forest floors below, always alert and always active. The rosettes on their dappled coats breaks up the outline of their body, allowing them to thrive, relatively undisturbed. During the course of the NHFU’s lifespan, we’ve had the great privilege of working alongside these rare creatures, gaining their trust in a way that was thought impossible and sharing their stories around the world.
The common name 'leopard' is a combination of the Greek words leōn (lion) and pardos (panther), which reflects the ancient belief that the leopard was a hybrid between a lion and a panther.
Even as far back as the fossil record over 1-million years ago, leopards were the most common large predator to live on Africa’s soil. By the 1700s, leopards were widespread throughout Southern and northern Africa, the middle East, Eurasia and Asia. This enormous range is testament to the adaptability of these streetwise cats. From cityscapes to mountains, rainforests to desert, the leopard has conquered them all. This is largely thanks to their less-than-fussy dietary requirements. Keen vision, hearing, smell, ultrasensitive whiskers and specialised cells in their eyes that allow them to detect movement in the dark, are all part of their murderous tool-kits. They prowl along the ground towards an oblivious victim and lie motionless, waiting for the perfect moment before bursting into speeds of nearly 40mph and pouncing, gripping their victim in their claws and suffocating it with a bite to the throat. In cities, they are the silent assailants of sleeping dogs, but elsewhere they must survive on anything from dung beetles to frogs, snakes to birds, and even cheetah cubs and genets.
While leopards excel at going up trees, going down tends to be a lot more difficult!
One of the easiest places to spot a leopard is, perhaps, up a tree. A range of adaptations give this climbing cat the tools necessary for an arboreal life. Retractable claws dig into bark, long tails keep them balanced on the flimsiest of branches, and a mobile backbone allows them to twist at impossible angles. Life in the canopies has one great advantage: it allows them a meal in peace. Powerful back legs and shoulder muscles helps them hoist up heavy prey with them, otherwise lions and hyenas would happily make a meal of a leopard’s hard work. But there is one other benefit, when the trees are in flower. As leopards lurk in the canopies, oblivious antelope gather below to feast on these rare, nutritious treats. If you’ve seen our film, “The Great Flood”, then you’ll know what happens next! While leopards have no problem climbing up trees, climbing down can prove a little more difficult- their claws now curve the wrong way and their powerful muscles are only a hinderance. They have little choice but to shimmy their way down and make a very uncharacteristically un-elegant descent.
A mother and son embrace.
‘Secretive, silent, smooth and supple as a piece of silk, the leopard is an animal of darkness, but even in the dark it travels alone,’ is the famous saying of Professor J. du P. Bothma. It’s true, with one exception. Females are forced to abandon their nomadic lifestyle with the arrival of cubs. Weighing in at roughly 500g, these (typically) two tiny, helpless offspring are born blind, bald and utterly adorable. Their mother will leave them stashed in areas of thick vegetation until they’re ready to explore their world alone. Trailing along behind, it’s easy to get lost in the long grass, so it is thought that the leopard’s charismatic white tips on their tails and backs of their ears serve as light house beacons for meandering cubs. At nearly two years old, they’ll reach independence and leave their mother’s side to carve out their own territories. But these are hotly contested. Fierce rasping barks (known as ‘sawing’, as they really do sound like someone sawing wood) as well as urine sprays, scratches on trees, and the rubbing of their oily cheeks on vegetation serves to warn intruders – no trespassing, this is meow land!
This is meow land!
Until now, leopards have spread across the world with great success. Today, however, the species has lost up to 75% of its historic range. Many threats face them, from conflict with humans over their previously mentioned eclectic diet, to prey depletion and poaching. As a result they are today listed as “vulnerable” to extinction. But hope is not lost! Here in Africa, where the leopard is culturally revered as the ultimate symbol of power, the primary threat to leopards is the illegal skin trade. If ever you needed proof that documentaries have the power to do good, then look no further than ‘To Skin A Cat’. This documentary confronts the ceremonial practice of wearing leopard-skin cloaks by the 4-million strong and rapidly growing Shembe Church in KZN, South Africa. Instead of shutting the practice down, the makers of the documentary work with the community to find ethical and realistic faux-fur alternatives. Saving the lives of every single leopard is important. As apex predators who sit at the top of their food chains, they’re a sign of a healthy ecosystem whose sudden removal can trigger a catastrophic collapse in local biodiversity. Beyond this, they are an incredible economic resource, as one of the most desirable species to be seen they enable sustainable tourism operations to employ locals and bring money to the economy that benefits surrounding communities.
Worth the skin on its back?
Key to the conservation success of any animal is, ironically, humans. Empowering, engaging and educating local communities on the importance of leopards is key to their survival, as well as improving the livelihoods of those that are most impacted by them. Take ‘Leopard Ecology and Conservation’, for example. This local charitable organisation, here in Botswana, helps farmers mitigate attacks on their livestock by building leopard-proof kraals. Here at the NHFU, one of our proudest productions was ‘Africa’s Fishing Leopards’, the incredible story of a family of leopards who learned a new, and previously unknown, skill in the face of hardship. NHFU founder Brad Bestelink was on the ground for 18-months to capture the lives of these most secretive of creatures and bring their story to a worldwide audience, to help them fall in love with a cat on the precipice of calamity. Last year, we launched our community engagement programme to showcase our documentaries, including ‘Africa’s Fishing Leopards’, to local communities in their own language to engage those on the frontline of conservation in the fight for their survival- with their help, there is still hope for leopards. And what can you do, sitting on your cosy sofa at home? Take a holiday! Visit Botswana, choose a responsible tourism operation, see these incredible animals for yourself, and help save them all in one go. Not so bad, huh?
Blog and photography by Hannah Gormley