With a wilderness area spanning 76,600 acres (30,000 hectares), we at Mashatu Game Reserve would never be so brazen as to guarantee a sighting of any particular kind. Mother Nature has her own ways and all we promise is that she will entertain, enthral and captivate our guests.
On the top of most people’s bucket list to see or photograph is the elusive leopard. Mashatu has a reputation amongst safari goers and photographers from around the world as a destination with a high potential of leopard sightings. Spotting at least one leopard per game drive is not unusual and some days as many as three or four are seen.
Known to be amongst the most secretive of the big cats, leopards are difficult to trace and locate in the wild. Our team of experienced guides and trackers have all the skill and experience to find them, while simultaneously guiding you through the other wonderful things Mashatu has to offer.
Whether you are ambling along in the safari vehicle overlooking the open plains at the impalas and zebras grazing, or giraffes browsing from the treetops or perhaps stopping to take in a magnificent sunset, your guide and tracker team will be looking for signs of all the cats, including the leopard.
As they drive along they may suddenly stop the engine of the vehicle and sit quietly for a few minutes. Perhaps it was the sounds of monkeys or squirrels alarm calling, or even the staccato cackling of guineafowl alerting them to the possible presence of a predator.
Sitting in silence they will try gather more information, while you take in the beautiful surroundings. Listen carefully and you may hear what they hear. The direction from which the alarm calling is coming and the direction in which it is moving.
Leopards communicate with each other through distinctive calls, a male will alert a rival leopard of his presence by making a hoarse, raspy cough. If you engage all your senses you may also hear the deep, low-pitched, sound which your guide is instinctively tuned in to hear. With confirmation that it’s a leopard, your guide and tracker will start to actively search for it.
Leopards are solitary and spend most of their time alone within their own territories. If you catch the unmistakable scent of popcorn while driving around, chances are there’s a leopard that has just passed through. They leave scratches on trees, poop and urine scent marks (which smell just like buttered popcorn) to mark their territories.
Now the search is on and you’ll notice your tracker watching the ground carefully, looking for the tracks of a leopard that has recently passed by. If they pick up the track, the search becomes easier, as they can establish how long ago it passed by and what direction it’s moving in. There are other visual clues they may look for, if the leopard has recently made a kill there may be drag marks from it pulling the unfortunate prey to a safe place, normally high up in a tree.
There’s a wonderful sense of anticipation as you know you are closing in. At this point of the search, it’s mostly visual but all senses are still engaged. The team will be scanning the area from the drainage lines to every branch of the gigantic Mashatu trees and just like that they will pick up the swish of a tail, a quick flash of a movement through the shrub or a quiet growl. A leopard is found.
Seeing a leopard in the wild is always thrilling, but even more so is the search for it – immerse yourself, indulge all your senses – and the excitement of that first sighting of the leopard will remain with you forever.
by Janet Kleyn