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In search of Leopards

By Martha Hales

The leopard is known for its stealth, power and sleek characteristics as well as its distinctive dappled coat. It's a formidable hunter, using the unique tactic of dragging prey into the trees to prevent other hunters from sharing in its kill. The leopard is one of the most majestic animals on the planet, is included in Africa's ‘Big Five’ and is one of the most elusive big cats out there.

Leopard in lush grass of Sri LankaIts range, although constantly threatened by human activity, is still very widespread, including much of Africa and large swathes of Asia. This makes it the wild cat with the largest distribution of all, and in Africa it is the most common big cat, which seems surprising considering how hard they can be to track down. There are estimates suggesting there could be as many as 100,000 leopards left globally in the wild, although accuracy is never assured as their elusive nature makes leopards very hard to count. 100,000 is quite a high number, and indeed the global leopard population would be thriving if it weren't for several factors.

Firstly, the mottled fur of a leopard has great value and so many animals are poached for their pelt. Secondly, habitats are becoming fragmented due to encroaching human presence. Thirdly, the leopard’s prey has diminished in some areas due to human presence, which means the big cats sometimes kill livestock, which in turn forces farmers to retaliate as they need their livestock to make a living.

Leopards as a species demonstrate habits which do not make them particularly easy to track down. They are solitary animals and tend to be most active under the cover of darkness. But part of the appeal of catching sight of a leopard is the hard-won sighting itself - they are rendered more mysterious and rewarding by their very elusiveness. Here’s the TravelLocal lowdown on the best places to go in search of leopards.

Africa

South Africa

Leopard sitting in South AfricaKruger National Park is one of the most renowned places for wildlife spotting in Africa. Leopards can be seen here along with many other important and sought after species of big game, such as lions, giraffes, rhinos, hippos, zebras, cheetahs and elephants. African leopards can be distinguished from cheetahs by their much bulkier frame and outlined spots rather than solid spots on the cheetah. Also, cheetahs chase their prey to wear them out before a kill, while leopards rely on the element of surprise on the hunt. Look for leopards in the branches of trees, a favourite lounging place, rather than at ground level. Leopards are just as elusive and solitary in Kruger National Park as they are elsewhere in the world, but there is always plenty of other wildlife to keep you entertained while you are looking.

Namibia

Leopard on a track in NamibiaThe vast empty spaces of Etosha National Park in Namibia are great for wildlife spotting, with very little vegetation marring the view and large numbers of animals. Leopard in Etosha tend to appear during the day at Moringa, Stark’s Pan, Rietfontein, Goas, Nuamses and Kalkheuwel. May to September is the cooler, drier season in Etosha which means reduced cover from vegetation and scarce water sources. The lack of water forces the wildlife out into the open search of a drink which is great for onlookers. The favoured prey of the Etosha leopards are springbok, impala and steenbok, which they often stalk at waterholes.

Botswana

One of the reasons that the leopard has such a huge range globally is that it can survive in so many different habitats. From humid tropical forests to vast savannahs, and from wetlands to barren mountains, this is a very adaptable species. They are also very flexible in terms of diet, hunting other mammals, fish and crustaceans, insects and reptiles as well as the occasional human. Botswana’s leopards have been made famous by the film ‘Eye of the Leopard’ which was filmed in the Mombo Concession in the Okavango Delta. The Moremi game reserve is also a prime leopard spotting location in the east of the Okavango region, where you can take part in safaris on a mokoro (a traditional dugout canoe) - perfect for negotiating the watery landscape of the area.

Uganda

Leopard in a tree in UgandaLeopards can be found in several of the major protected areas in Uganda, particularly Kidepo Valley National Park, Murchison Falls National Park, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Lake Mburo National Park and Semiliki National Park. They are not present in great numbers anywhere, and as with everywhere else they inhabit, they are expert at remaining under the radar. Their distinctive patterned coat is exceptional camouflage and it is quite common for visitors not to be able to see leopards on first glance even with a safari guide pointing out their location. Their solitary lives are another barrier to easily spotting leopards, and means that they reproduce less frequently than many species who live in groups. One of the most likely places to see leopards in Uganda is in Queen Elizabeth National Park.

Asia

Sri Lanka

Leopard cub in a tree in Sri LankaLeopards enjoy apex predator status in Sri Lanka, and they are the only large cat species present. Although Yala National Park can boast the highest density of leopards anywhere in the world, they are still frustratingly tricky to track down. The park is divided into 5 blocks and block one is generally regarded as the block with the highest number of leopards, but bear in mind that visiting Yala on separate occasions increases your chances of a sighting. Many people visit the park with the sole intention of catching a photo of a leopard. Remind yourself to get excited about the other remarkable wildlife you will come across in the park, just in case leopards remain out of sight.

India

Leopard in IndiaThe leopard population in India has been most recently estimated to be around 12,000 to 14,000, and there are many protected areas in India where leopards can enjoy their natural environment largely unimpeded by humankind. There are several national parks which are promising locations for leopard spotting, including Kanha National Park, in the state of Madhya Pradesh in central India.

Here the landscape is a mixture of forests, plains and high plateaus. Not only is there a good chance of seeing leopards here, but also tigers, who are equally numerous. Nagarhole National Park located in Karnataka, Southern India is another protected area where leopards are present in significant numbers, along with tiger, bison, elephant, dhole, deer, antelope, and sloth bear. It's a wonderful watery landscape of undulating forests laced with streams and waterfalls.

Iran

The Persian Leopard of IranIran is home to the Persian leopard, and there are more of this subspecies here than any other nation. Sadly the numbers of Persian leopard have suffered a catastrophic decline over the last centuries, and although numbers on first appraisal don’t seem disastrous, the population is very fragmented and scattered into small isolated groups which makes breeding more of a challenge. The threats which these leopards are faced with are numerous and complex including destruction of habitat, poaching, and poisoning, but on a happier note, there are a number of initiatives underway to strengthen and increase the population. The best place in Iran to try to spot a leopard is Golestan National Park.

Make it happen

The prospect of seeing these incredible creatures in the wild is a tempting one. To find out more about the destinations listed in the article, click on the links above. Our expert local operators can create a bespoke itinerary based around your priorities. Have a look at their itinerary ideas for inspiration. To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office, please call +44 (0) 117 325 7898.