Anyone who has been to (or done research on) the game reserves in central and southern Africa will be familiar with the term “the Big Five”, which relates to leopards, lions, elephants, rhinoceros and buffaloes. This term was coined early in the twentieth century by great white hunters (nowadays known as professional hunters) to denote the five most difficult and dangerous animals to track and hunt. These days, of course, it’s on every safari-goers bucket list to see the Big Five and even more impressive if they can say they saw them all in one day!
I though it would be fun to blog about the Big Five over the next few weeks, as we are always excited to see these animals. I’ll start with the leopard, as this beautiful cat is one of the most difficult of the Big Five to see. This is because it’s nocturnal, which means that it hunts at night and generally sleeps during the day. There are exceptions to this rule, of course, and leopards are sometimes seen early in the morning or late in the day. People will wait for hours in a particular spot if they’ve heard that a leopard has been seen there earlier on (we’ve done this ourselves), as leopard sightings are considered to be very special indeed.
Leopards like to sleep in trees, so if the tree is close enough to the road there is sure to be a good audience – a safari version of the paparazzi! Leopards are not as nervous as other animals and their relaxed behaviour enables folks to get some really good photographs of them in the wild – if you can spot them in the first place that is. They are amazingly camouflaged in the African bush and you really have to look carefully for them.
They are solitary animals that only get together for mating purposes. They mark their territory by spraying urine and scratching on trees. Leopards are not like lions that live in prides, so when more than one is seen, it is usually a mother with her cubs. She suckles cubs for three months, but introduces solid food to them after six weeks. They stay with her, learning the ropes about survival and hunting, for just under two years. Litters comprise of between one and three cubs born after a gestation period of one hundred days.
Leopards are powerfully built and hunt a wide variety of warm-blooded prey. Unlike lions, they seldom eat their prey on the ground, but drag it up into a tree to eat at their leisure and to protect it from other predators like lions and hyenas. Their strength is such that they can haul a carcass of their own weight up into a tree.
Unfortunately, here in Namibia, leopards are a problem to farmers, often killing their livestock or expensive imported game animals. It is sad that these losses lead to the extermination of these beautiful animals by the farmers, and we hope that they won’t become extinct because man has taken over their natural habitat and hunting grounds.