Spots and fangs

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Our planet is home to a variety of iconic predators but few can match the stealth and beauty of the leopard. Wildlife photographer Greg du Toit made it his mission to capture one of Africa’s shyest big cats on camera

The enigmatic leopard can be found in every conceivable habitat and altitude. But rather strangely, its numbers are decreasing worldwide. This cat has disappeared from 36 per cent of its original global range; and currently, the African leopard is classified as ‘Vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, just one step away from being ‘Endangered’.

When I started my Velvet and Stealth photography project in 2008, they were labelled ‘Near Threatened’, which is further evidence of their decline. If people don’t appreciate the beauty of an animal, they won’t conserve it. It is as simple as that. So my goal is to bring a fresh portfolio of the African leopard to a wider audience, increase general public awareness of the issue and foster a greater knowledge and appreciation of these iconic, little-known cats.

There is one thing you can be sure about a leopard: you do not see it; it allows itself to be seen. So how exactly do I photograph such an elusive predator? I do not use bait, radio collars, microchips or camera traps. Instead, I spend eight hours a day in the field, learning each animal’s personal territory. Leopard densities vary from one animal per 100sq km to 30 per 100sq km, depending on the type of habitat. In South Africa’s Greater Kruger National Park, where I carried out most of my work, some of the highest leopard densities in the world exist. While the individuals in this area enjoy living in one of the continent’s largest ecosystems, in reality, each one’s territory consists of just a few square kilometres. Armed with this knowledge, I repeatedly — 47 times to be exact — revisited the same small area over nine years. And by following tracks, I was able to locate leopard.

One of my chief goals has been to document these cats’ diurnal activities as well as their nightly forays. Photographing them by day is hard enough but it becomes more difficult in the dark, when you’re armed with nothing but a handheld lamp hooked up to the car’s battery.

I followed eight leopards throughout the project, and spent just two hours with each one under darkness to ensure their natural hunting habits were not jeopardised. Besides, the warm and weak spotlight does not affect the animals’ eyes, which are far superior to our own. I was a conservationist long before I was a photographer, and it is my love for leopard that drove this venture.

To date, I have spent more than a thousand hours tracking these magnificent yet declining creatures. It is easy to spot a lion or elephant but a leopard is seldom seen — and the old adage ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is of great concern. I ardently hope that this collection of photographs not only reveals their astounding beauty and mystery but also reminds people of the importance of protecting them.

Predator eyes
Greater Kruger National Park, South Africa
“A close-up view of a leopard’s eyes is invigorating. It’s almost as if one can see the rods and cones behind the jet-black pupils. My favourite part of the eye, though, is the network of capillaries running along the lower circumference. There aren’t many places where a photographer can get so close to a wild leopard and I count myself blessed to have had this privilege.”

To find out more about Greg du Toit and his photographic workshops, visit gregdutoit.com; and to read more of his thoughts on the challenges facing the African leopard today, click here

Morning stretch Greater Kruger National Park, South Africa “Leopard enjoy lying in trees where they are able to spot both potential prey and danger. I often found them occupying trees that appear horrifically uncomfortable. However, on this occasion, the female had found a comfortable fork in a marula tree — so much so that she had fallen asleep, leaving me rather frustrated. The dawn light was disappearing but just when I’d almost given up hope, she gave an almighty yawn. An outstretched paw and extended claws added a delightful extra element.”Last breath Greater Kruger National Park, South Africa “Leopard love to stalk anything that moves. Of all the big cats, they are by far the most patient hunters. On this morning, we spotted one lying patiently in the grass near some impala. She didn’t move for what seemed like an eternity. But finally, a gust of wind spooked the herd, and seizing her opportunity she grabbed her prey with precision. The serene look of acceptance on the antelope’s face reminded me that life and death is neither dark nor sinister but just a part of the circle of life.”A leopard’s tale Greater Kruger National Park, South Africa “Leopard are often found in trees, and maintaining balance is vitally important. Having a long, thick and kinked tail aids their balance when leaping from one branch to the next.”Flying leopard Moremi Game Reserve, Botswana “It was our last morning in the Okavango Delta when our guide noticed a herd of impala moving in the direction of an ebony tree where a leopardess lay. Although the cat was very high, my heartbeat quickened. I noticed her shuffle her back feet ever so slightly, like a sprinter in the blocks. This was the moment every wildlife photographer lives for. I sat, poised over my camera. She sat, poised over the impala. In a split second, she flew out of the tree. In her steep vertical descent, she was simply poetry in motion.”Caracal kill Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya “Leopard are the most versatile of Africa’s large predators, with prey ranging from grasshoppers to baby giraffe. However, most of their targets are small and hunted playfully. Once, our guide spotted a leopard in a croton bush thicket. As we approached, we saw her gripping a caracal in her claws, suffocating it. I managed to squeeze off a few frames of this once-in-a-lifetime sighting. After her victim was dead, she proceeded to play with it, tossing it about like a rag doll.”Ever playful Northern Tuli Game Reserve, Botswana “A young cub had knocked a kill out of a tree and was busy playing with his food. Eventually bored of this entertainment, here you can see him looking up at his mother, hoping she might engage in some playful activity. Leopard mothers are extremely patient with their offspring, while the males perform no parental duties whatsoever.”Mother and cub Greater Kruger National Park, South Africa “Leopard are fiercely independent and it is very rare to capture two in the same frame. The only time this occurs is when a female has cubs or when adults are mating. I had been trying for years to get an image of a mother with her offspring and was delighted with this. The parent-to-child bond is strong, and I often witnessed playful behaviour being initiated by both.”Pugs and paws Greater Kruger National Park, South Africa “The base of a leopard’s pad is lobed and considerably larger than its toes, which allows for perfectly silent mobility. Other predators that chase prey (as opposed to stalking it) have smaller pads and larger toes, for example, cheetahs. Following their tracks was my standard modus operandi when trying to locate a leopard subject to photograph.”Treetop larder Greater Kruger National Park, South Africa “I found this female in the early morning. She had successfully killed an antelope during the night and dragged the carcass into the boughs of an ebony tree. Leopard are able to haul more than twice their body weight up a vertical trunk, and they are the only large cat on the continent to do so. This highly effective strategy avoids interspecies klepto-parasitism and ensures that energy spent hunting is properly rewarded — not only is her meal safe from other terrestrial predators and scavenging hyena but also from vultures.”

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