by Hank Leukart
February 6, 2008
Stalking a solitary leopard
The rich reward of looking for a leopard is not what you’d expect.
A Darter models for the camera (view all Kwetsani Camp, Botswana photos)
KAVANGO DELTA, Botswana — Leopards are solitary. Unlike most of Africa’s big game — elephants live in herds, giraffes move in towers, and even lions travel in prides — leopards rarely associate with each other. They are stealthy, versatile, and hard to spot, and after three days in the Bushveld, we still hadn’t seen one.
We weren’t complaining.
Our guide Goodman showed us a rich world of wildlife at Savuti, exceeding our greatest expectations, and we knew that experiencing Africa through his eyes was a priceless adventure. It was tough for all of us to wave goodbye to him from our propeller plane as we took off toward Kwetsani Camp in the Okavango Delta’s Jao Reserve, the last stop on our Africa itinerary.
The Okavango Delta is Africa’s largest freshwater wetland, supposedly boasting one of the greatest concentrations of wildlife in Africa. Yet when we arrived there, the wildlife appeared to have taken a New Year’s holiday vacation. We saw almost none of the large game to which we had become accustomed — no elephants, no giraffes, and no lions.
One morning, during a particularly quiet game drive, our guide Ronald received a message in Setswana on our Land Rover’s shortwave radio; he informed us that a leopard had been spotted about thirty minutes away. We knew that a single leopard would be difficult to find again, and we didn’t want to miss seeing him.
At our request, Ronald drove us to the leopard’s reported location, but we couldn’t spot the big cat. Ronald slowly followed the leopard’s fresh tracks in the sand for miles, and we knew we were right on his tail. Yet the unique terrain of the Bushveld, with its miles of leopard-obscuring landscape, made him impossible to see. Our eyes carefully searched every plant, every tree trunk, and every termite mound for any sign, but he continued to elude us.
We were frustrated, but during our search, we began to see wildlife we had never seen before. Without elephants and giraffes (and leopards) hoarding our attention, we found it easier to focus on Botswana’s smaller animals, like steenboks, baby warthogs, and the exquisite bird population. Soon, we became obsessed with capturing birds on camera mid-flight, an almost impossible feat without a tripod. We would curse birds perching motionless on trees; then we would curse them again when they flew away so quickly that they were only a blur in our telephoto zoom lens.
For two full days, we stalked the lonely leopard through the wilderness, following his fresh tracks. He evaded us for so long that we started to suspect he was toying with us. Was he carefully trailing immediately behind our Land Rover out of our view, chuckling at our incompetence? Was he silently napping above our heads on the car’s canvas cover as we searched every grain of sand looking for a clue to his location? Did he also have a shortwave radio, enjoying our broadcasts, allowing him to know our whereabouts?
During that time, we took hundreds of photos of the Lilac-breasted Roller, Botswana’s colorful national bird; we joined the Cape Turtle Dove in its cooing of its traditional song (in the morning: “Work harder; work harder,” and in the evening: “Drink lager; drink lager”); and we sat in amazement as a Darter let us get within an arm’s distance, modeling for us as we took its picture.
Once, we thought we were close to spotting the leopard when we came across a gutted impala. The leopard had strewn blood and entrails everywhere and dragged part of the impala, including its head and horns, high onto a tree branch to protect his meal from bandits. We suspected the leopard was nearby, laughing at us as we inhaled the putrid stench of his decomposing lunch, but we didn’t see him.
By then, we didn’t mind. In Okavango, thanks to him, we discovered another Africa hidden underneath the first we had come to know — more subtle but equally fascinating. We just had to look a little harder.
On New Year’s Eve, the night before our return flight to the U.S., the Kwetsani camp staff treated us to a scrumptious foods-of-the-world feast. After the food, the staff sang a medley of traditional African chants and danced with overwhelming vigor. Their smiles were so big and their energy so infectious it was hard to deny the revitalizing medicine of the wide open spaces of Botswana.
Maybe that wily leopard sat next to our camp in the night shadows, just out of our view, watching us and enjoying the performance, but I doubt it. Probably, he just wanted to be alone in the wilderness.