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Leopard Photo Safari

For the last decade I have been photographing the African leopard in my professional capacity (see one flying out a tree here). During this time I have undertaken assignments for the BBC Wildlife and Geo, in which I published photo essays of these enigmatic and beautiful cats. You can see a selection from my Velvet and Stealth project here. More recently I completed a Spots and Fangs story for the Travel Africa magazine (view the pdf here). While I have covered leopards extensively as a professional wildlife photographer, they are to me, far more than a subject for my work. I love leopards and I do so in a deep and spiritual way. You can read more about this in my Vanishing Portraits story.

Recently while on a leopard photo safari we came across a leopard den, in the form of a fallen over tree stump in a forest, close to the bank of a river. It was a spectacularly wild piece of Africa, far away from humanity and tourists. Sitting, waiting at the den for what seemed like an eternity, we waited patiently (or as patiently as can be expected) for the mother to return. A tiny leopard cub knows to stay completely hidden until its mother returns from hunting. In fact, staring at the fallen over tree stump in the middle of nowhere, I was wondering if this was all some kind of a joke on photographers? But, one of the camp guides swore he had seen a tiny leopard when he had radioed us, and so we waited... and we waited... and we waited.

Just as the light of day was fading, the mother appeared seemingly out of nowhere, from deep within the forest. Before we knew it, she had leapt on top of the log and her cub had run out to greet her, excitedly. The cub was simply overjoyed to see its mum and so were we - to see the the cub! After allowing the cub to suckle, is was bath time, and the mother began licking her young one from head to tail. We watched on as these intimate moments between a wild leopard mother and cub unfolded and right in front of us. Even though it has been a decade of leopard photography for me, I was so excited that a large percentage of my shots were blurry due to my shaking hands and the low light levels (even though I had my D5 in action). So, these handful of shots represent a sighting so special that I will never forget it.

After the cub had suckled (you can see the wet hair around the mother's teat), the mom then looked at the cub as if to say "It's bath time". The intimacy between the mother and her cub was tangible, all I had to do was be there and to click the shutter button

The mother then proceeded to lick the cub from head to tail, giving it a thorough bath with her rough tongue. The cub was not enjoying it, just like any young toddler.

The little cub grew impatient wanting to walk off but the diligent mother made sure she finished the bath properly.

Finally bath time was over and with the cub wet from tip to tail as a result all all his mother's licking, it did look wonderfully clean. The mother then lead the cub away and into the forest. It took a while for us to register that we had just witnessed a wild leopard mother bath her cub and in the most sublime light too. Driving back to the camp and sitting around the campfire a wave of joy swept over us all as we unpacked the afternoon's experience. "Had we really been so lucky?" was all we could say.

The end

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