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Monday, October 10, 2011

The Big Five: Leopard!

This post is one in a series on Africa's "Big Five". You can view all my Big Five posts here. Although we were not particularly tuned into seeing the Big Five, all of the animals on that list (Elephant, African lion, Rhino, Leopard and Cape buffalo) were certainly on our wish list. But seeing the Big Five was not a priority per se. As it turned out, we saw multiple animals of each species of the Big Five, however the leopard turned out to be the least encountered. We "only" saw two leopards. I say "only" because it was conceivable that we could go on safari and see none.

Traffic jam at leopard sighting
Photo: Danika Van Niel
(Samburu National Reserve, Kenya 8/11)
Our first leopard siting was in Samburu National Reserve. William, our guide, was alerted to its presence over the radio. By the time we arrived, there were at least a dozen safari vehicles already present. The only problem was, all of the guides around us had also just arrived and no one within earshot of us knew where the leopard was. You have to picture the land rovers packed in close to each other and guides asking back and forth in Swahili "Ambapo ni chui?" (or something like that) while the tourist tried the same in English. All I learned was that SOMEWHERE on the rocks ahead of us was a leopard. I began to carefully scan with my binoculars and finally it popped out of nowhere! Once I saw it, everyone else wanted directions as to where it was. So despite there being so many people there, it was exciting to "refind" the leopard on our own.

(Samburu National Reserve, Kenya 8/11)
The photo at left was taken when the leopard was on the move. It is not the greatest photo as the light was low and I was hand holding my big lens, but it is our best :) Our only other leopard was in the Serengeti. It was far away, but 1) our guide found it without any help and 20 it was in a tree! No photos but fond memories of that one.

(Samburu National Reserve, Kenya 8/11)
Leopards can only be confused with one other African animal and that is the cheetah. However, there are several ways to tell them apart. Look closely at this cheetah. I took this photo on the same day as the leopard pic above. Cheetahs are more sleek overall. They remind me of greyhounds. Also, look at the black "tear streaks" on the face of the cheetah. Finally, look at the difference in the spots. Leopards have spots in clusters or rosettes on the torso. Of course, there are other differences. Leopards are ambush predators while cheetahs are known for their incredible bursts of speed to cathc their prey. And cheetahs are the only cat int he world that has claws that do not fully retract. One final difference: cheetahs are not known to attack humans, while leopards do. This last fact is what puts the leopard in the Big Five and excludes the cheetah.

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