Leopards, beautiful but elusive, are reluctant to venture into the open, and are notoriously difficult to photograph with a completely clean background.
Our expedition to the Northern Serengeti had tried in vain for several days to capture the camera shy leopards in action. Day after day we tried one locale after another, sitting in the Landrover, camera and long lens at the ready, sandwiches growing warm on the sun drenched seat beside us. Amongst the kopje strewn hillocks we searched and waited, and searched and waited some more. Our guide, who had excellent experience in the area, knew of a young female leopard who along with her mother and sibling, was often sighted in this area. Their preference was to spend their time expertly camouflaged in the thick bush along the small river course. A series of magnificent granite kopjes sat just a stone’s throw away, tantalizingly out in the open. Perhaps the relative coolness towards evening would bring them out? Or even the freshness of a new dawn? The following morning would be our last chance …
Despite our challenges seeing these stealthy cats, there was no doubt that leopards call this area home. Leopard populations in Northern Serengeti are stable due to their protected status. Without the conservation efforts of this and cooperating neighbouring areas, seeing these wild creatures and all of their counterpoints, would likely be impossible, not just difficult. We knew they were out there, we just needed to be patient, persistent, and maybe a little lucky. With one last roll of the dice, we headed to the area that was now so familiar to us.
The Landrover rumbled its approach, and movement in the bush made us aware that the three leopards were hidden in the thick riverine bush yet again. We waited, and waited, and waited. The departure time of our bush flight loomed ever closer. How close could we push it? We quite rightly did not want to disturb them, but we were running out of time. Suddenly the young female spotted something on the granite rock just behind us; she was off in a slinky blur.
We cautiously move our vehicle to the other side of the rock, not wanting to spook the magnificent rosette adorned cat, now looking directly at us. As we get there, she moves under some wood in deep shadow and just stares at us. Expletives rain down like an Indian monsoon inside the Landrover; we cannot believe our eyes.
Suddenly she shifts her gaze to the beautiful dome-shaped half-moon of granite five meters away where huge, ornately-coloured orange and blue rock Agamas are scurrying around, engaged in a courtship battle. It’s too much for her to resist, and her youthful exuberance kicks in. In a flash she is after them. The lizards stop dancing and bobbing their heads, quickly taking cover. With nothing to chase, the leopard pauses. Unexpectedly she is draped magnificently atop the sculpted rock, a golden cape of strength and beauty. We are in the perfect position looking directly at her.
After so much anticipation it’s all come together; I fire like crazy and pray my settings are good.
I look at the back of my camera and am relieved and then elated; for this flawless second she almost looks like a tame leopard. But I know there’s nothing tame about her. Wild, young, on the prowl, she freezes like a movie star posing on the red carpet, glorious in her untamed perfection.