Tag Archives: nocturnal animals

The Big Five : Part 1 – Leopards

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.

Leopard - up close

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.

A favourite sleeping spot

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.

Leopard cub

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.

A favourite sleeping spot

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.


Spotted Hyenas in Kruger National Park

A visit to the Kruger National Park in South Africa is such a rewarding experience for avid animal and bird lovers like ourselves.  We have just returned from a holiday in that part of the world and have literally hundreds of photographs to add to our collection.  Kruger is renowned for being home to the Big 5 – namely lions, elephants, buffalos, rhinos and leopards – and the challenge is to see all these in one day.  No mean feat when leopard numbers are low (only about 1000 were recorded in 2008) and the Park covers 20 000 square kilometers – the size of Wales!  Some folks have been going to the Park for years and still haven’t notched up the Big 5 in one day.

While it is thrilling to be able to see the Big 5, it is also great to come across animals that are not so common or, during the daytime, to see nocturnal animals that haven’t settled down to sleep off the night’s excesses.  Imagine our delight when, at first light, we came across a pair of spotted hyenas lying by the roadside.  We approached them very slowly, worried that they would scurry off into the bush, but they were very accommodating and remained exactly where we found them, enabling us to get some great photos of them.

Spotted hyena at the roadside KNP

Spotted hyena at the roadside KNP

Spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta) are carnivores and belong to the family Hyaenidae.  They tend to have bad press as they are mostly seen as cowardly scavengers in competition for prey that lion and other predators bring down.  However, they are skilled hunters in their own right and feed mainly on ungulates and weaker animals that are easy to catch.

Spotted hyena at the roadside KNP

They have strong stocky forequarters, whilst their hindquarters are shorter and sloped downwards, making it difficult for other animals to catch them from behind.  Their ungainly shape can be seen in the photo below – this was the second sighting we had of a hyena.  It had hidden the remains of a carcass in the water and had come back to retrieve its meal.  Prey is usually eaten alive and hyenas have voracious appetites – consuming about 14,5 kgs of meat at each meal.

Retrieving a carcass from the water

Our third sighting was also early in the morning, when we came across a mother hyena suckling two young cubs in a den next to the road.  She seemed unconcerned by the human paparazzi that were clicking away at the scene before them.

Mother and cubs

The gestation period is about 110 days and cubs (usually two, but sometimes three) are born throughout the year.  Hyenas rarely dig their own dens, preferring to use deserted warthog or jackal lairs.  Males don’t take part in the rearing of the youngsters, thus hyenas are mainly found in matriarchal clans, often sharing their dens.

Two suckling cubs

They may not be as exciting as the Big 5, but we enjoyed our encounters with these awkward-looking creatures and now know a lot more about them than we did before.