I like the scientific name for the African leopard, Panthera pardus pardus. I have no idea what ‘pardus’ means, but in my imagination ‘pardus pardus’ somehow perfectly represents this elusive animal as it moves stealthily through the bush on padded paws.
My interest in leopards started when I was a little boy. My grandmother had a number of albums containing her black and white photos, taken with a Brownie box camera in the 1930s, mounted on black pages. Underneath the photos she had written her comments in white ink. One of her albums, my favourite one, was devoted entirely to her family’s visits to the Kruger National Park. Amongst its contents there was a photo of my grandfather, the professor, with his back to the camera, urinating into a bush. The comment underneath was “What animal has Ems spotted over there, I wonder?”
My favourite photo in that album was of two leopards right next to the car window and a ball belonging to one of her children that my grandmother had thrown out of the car to see if the two big cats would play with it. Having looked at this photo many times, I reasonably assumed that leopards were a dime a dozen, easily spotted next to one’s car in the Kruger Park. I have been to the Kruger Park many times now, but I have never been close enough to a leopard to take a photo of one. Some would call my search for a wild leopard something of an obsession. I can’t really argue with that.
I did see a leopard up close once, years ago, but that was in a zoo. It was pacing dispiritedly around and around the inside perimeter of its enclosure, its whole demeanour silently crying out its yearning for freedom. The sight of it haunted me for a long time afterwards. I bitterly regretted having seen it.
Not everyone shares my enthusiasm for leopards. The Baluba people of the Congo in Central Africa have a proverb: “The leopard’s skin is beautiful, but its heart evil.” I certainly would not like to come face to face with one in the open. In the Kruger Park’s Berg-en-Dal camp there is a memorial to a young ranger who had been killed by a leopard. He had taken a group of tourists out on a night drive. Stopping under a bridge, he had stepped out of the vehicle to smoke a cigarette. A leopard had jumped on him and had killed him in front of the horrified tourists.
When you drive along at a leisurely crawl in the Kruger Park looking for animals and you come upon a traffic jam of stationery vehicles, you know that someone has spotted an exciting, less common species of animal, such as a lion or a cheetah or a leopard. You join the traffic jam and ask someone in another vehicle what everyone is looking at. “There is a lion just behind that shrub, to the left of that animal track, about twenty metres past that small rock,” they would explain and we would join the jostling for position as other vehicles moved on, to try and spot the animal. As soon as I see a traffic jam in the Park, I always fervently hope that I would see a leopard up close this time.
Someone has spotted something exciting (possibly a leopard)
On one trip to the Park, while having a cup of coffee at an outdoor café, we got talking to a young man traveling by himself. I mentioned my leopard obsession to him. “They are around,” he told me. “You just have to keep looking. Look up into the big trees for a dark blob. That’s how you spot them.”
A few days later we accidentally came across the same fellow in one of the campsites. “Have you seen any leopards yet?” he asked me. “I saw two of them this morning, about a kilometre apart, both of them walking across the road right in front of my car,” he added. Had my neck not been so sore from peering fruitlessly into the tree canopies for days on end in search of a leopard, I might well have attempted to do him some physical harm.
The last time I visited the Kruger Park was in 2012. Once again I had scoured the bush and the trees fruitlessly for the sight of a leopard. We saw a group of four cheetahs. They are very impressive felines in their own right, but seeing them did not diminish my obsessive determination to find a leopard in the least. On that trip we spoke to a few people who had actually come across leopards, but our own leopard spotting cupboard remained bare.
Then, on our last day there, I found a leopard right under my nose, in the Skukuza campsite where we were staying overnight. I grabbed my camera, focussed furiously and quickly took a photo of the little toy leopard. It will just have to do for the time being, until my next trip to the Kruger Park in search of the elusive Panthera pardus pardus.
Tim’s one and only leopard photo
Tim/26 April 2013
In August 2014 I once again visited the Kruger Park to continue my obsessive search for a leopard. One morning we came upon a traffic jam of cars blocking the road. As we approached I looked around and there, in a dead tree not far from the road, it was …
Photo of Panthera pardus pardus, taken by Tim in August 2014