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Velvet and Stealth
Even here in Africa, most people live alongside leopards but never get to see them. My home country of South Africa is one of the best places in the world to photograph leopards and so it was that I undertook a personal assignment to not only find leopards but to spend as much time with them as possible. I wanted to get to know them and to assemble a collection of images that can be used to reveal both their enigmatic beauty and mystery.
Delicate yet Powerful
To date I have spent a total of over 1000 hours tracking and photographing leopards (over the duration of the last 6 years). It is easy to spot a lion or an elephant but a leopard is seldom seen and the old adage of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ can apply, which is worrying from a conservation point of view. The Snow Leopard has received excellent coverage and is now widely known and loved. It is my hope that we do not need to wait until the African leopard is critically endangered before we give it the same degree of publicity. It is widely accepted that leopard numbers are on the decline worldwide and the African subspecies is currently classified as Near Threatened (since 2008) on the IUCN Red Data List and is an appendix 1 species. If this decline continues the leopard will soon qualify as Vulnerable (one step away from endangered). Leopards have, to date, disappeared from about 36% of their global range.
A Young Hunter
This is one of my personal favourite images. Here you see a mother leopard taking her cub along on a hunt for the first time. I have watched this cub since he was born and I have especially enjoyed watching his rambunctious nature taking in its stride, the trials and tribulations of life in the African bush. I once watched him run to the very top of a tree to escape a hyena and I have also watched him stalking and pouncing on almost anything that moves, including of course his ever-patient mother. He is now 9 months old and is fast becoming a supreme predator. I already dread the day when he will leave the area to find a territory of his own.
Circle of Life
Unlike lions, which view hunting as a major chore, leopards view hunting as a perpetual game and one that they are rather partial too. Also differing to lion, their diet is far more catholic and comfortably includes items as small as a mouse and as large as an impala antelope. As such, the African bush offers them a plethora of hunting opportunities and like overgrown pussycats; they revel in a perpetual game of the proverbial cat and mouse. Of all the big African cats, leopards are by far the most patient hunters. They will stare at a rustle in the grass or stalk a herd of antelope for hours, waiting for just the right time to pounce. On this particular morning we spotted a leopard patiently lying in the grass next to a herd of impala. She never moved or flinched for an hour until a gust of wind spooked the herd of impala. Seizing her opportunity, she grabbed her prey with precision! Captured in this frame is a fleeting glimpse of the impala’s last moment alive. A serene look of acceptance on the antelope’s face reminds me that life and death is a familiar cycle in the African bush and that it is neither dark nor sinister, but rather just a circle of life.
Eye to Eye
I have spent more time with sleeping leopards than with awake ones. This is the life of a wildlife photographer and if you do not simply enjoy spending time with your subject, then it is my guess that you will either go mad trying or quit altogether. I need to constantly remind myself that wildlife photography is about more than just getting a photograph. It is about respecting, studying, appreciating, understanding and admiring your subject and its environment. If you are patient enough, sooner or later it will pay off, but this is almost certainly going to be later. On this day, after patiently waiting, this sleeping leopard opened one glassy eye and stared into my lens.
A Cub’s Bath Time
Leopards make excellent mothers, moving their cubs between dens every few days, to avoid them being detected by other predators and scavengers. Trying to keep track of where the cubs are hidden is like playing hide and seek with a ghost. If one is lucky enough to locate a den site, getting the shy cubs out in the open is an entirely different and seemingly impossible challenge. On this particular afternoon however, this leopard mother finally realized that I have meant her family no harm, and she brought her two cubs out into the open. I had never before managed to get an image of a mother grooming her cub and on this day I was more than pleased, in fact I was quite emotional, at having captured this intimate portrait. Leopards are incredibly clean creatures licking themselves and their young constantly. This young boy cub stopped his whining protest of meows to inquisitively stare at my lens.
Phantom of the Bush
Trying to photograph a leopard on the move is not easy. They stride through the bush effortlessly and being typical inquisitive cats, they often double back on themselves to investigate a sight, sound or smell. It is therefore difficult to predict their erratic movements but one of my goals for my leopard project has been to capture a frame that shows the ease at which leopards cut through the think African bush, like a warm knife through butter. I desperately wanted to capture an image that portrays the effortless ghost-like movements of one of Africa’s most elusive predators but three years into the project, I was still searching for a frame to illustrate this aspect of there daily lives. I first began experimenting with slow shutter speeds but I was not achieving the desired effect; the results were too one-dimensional. I then changed my strategy and began experimenting with radial blur to try and convey my message. Adopting this technique from the way BMX riders are often photographed, I zoomed out as I took this image, while still panning with my moving subject.
Shadow and Sigh
This small antelope is called a Duiker and the kill had just taken place. I watched in awe as this female leopard dragged her quarry through the bush, looking for a suitable tree in which to cache her prey. Leopards are the only large African predator to drag their prey up trees and they are capable of dragging more than their own body weight straight up a vertical tree trunk. In this image, the warm orange reflection in the leopard’s eye is metaphorically juxtaposed against the cold blue reflection in the dead antelope’s, symbolizing the familiar life and death cycle that makes Africa’s ecosystems tick. I never get used to seeing a kill but I have learnt to photograph in the moment and to philosophize about it later.
Rosettes in Autumn
The sun had already set when we heard the rasping roar from a leopard. Frantically searching for the leopard while some light still remained, I was elated to find this leopardess elegantly draped over a granite boulder. The seasons are not very pronounced in Africa and seeing a bush willow tree in its autumn dress, I desperately wanted to make the most of the opportunity and include the bright orange leaves in my composition. I asked my expert driver guide to reposition and after some skillful 4x4 maneuvering, I managed to get as many leaves as was possible in the foreground of my frame. The evening sky had turned a royal blue and this, offset against the bright orange leaves had left me feeling that possibly for the first time during this project, I would be able to capture a frame that illustrates the immense beauty of the African leopard. A burst from my flash brought the scene to life.
This beautiful specimen of an African leopard had made a kill in the night, but her cubs had clumsily knocked the antelope carcass out of the tree. She now needed to re-hoist it and I knew there would be a brief moment when she would gaze back up at the tree, to plot her route up. As soon as her beautiful pale blue eyes glanced skyward, I hastily tripped my shutter button. Since then, I keep coming back to this image to study the form and beauty of what has to be Africa’s most striking predator. At the time of taking this photo, I never noticed her pink nose or her exceptionally long whiskers and eyelashes. I also never noticed the way that the spots on her forequarters gradually give way to rosettes. Every leopard also has a string of spots running across their throat, affectionately known as the pearl necklace. This will allow me to identify this leopard again in the future.
Leopards are largely nocturnal and my intention for this project has been to harness the latest advancements in digital cameras (specifically in the area of high ISO performance), to document the nightly forays of leopards. This extreme lowlight photography has been nothing short of invigorating as not only is it is very technical, but every situation is different, having required me to come up with my own recipe of manual settings that need constant tweaking. The one image I had desperately been searching for was one that captured the leopard in its nocturnal environment. I wanted an image that illustrates how the leopard carries out a single solitary existence cloaked in an environment of utter blackness. Finally getting my chance on this evening, I chose to include as much of the night around my subject as possible. Naturalist Maitland Edey described it best when he said ‘He is an animal of darkness and even in the dark he travels alone.’
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©Copyright. Greg du Toit Safaris & Photographic. 2013