We got lucky and saw a leopard on our second evening. Guests at Singita Lebombo are taken out to find animals twice a day, first at about 5:30 a.m. after a quick breakfast, and then again at about 3:30 p.m. after an afternoon snack. That is because many of the animals are more active at nighttime. When a guide in another Land Rover finds a hard-to-spot animal such as a leopard, he or she radios the other vehicles that are out and they all converge and take turns getting close to the site. The guides share information with each other continuously via radios, and it is impressive to watch them talking to their trackers in their native languages (Shangaan in the part of Africa we visited) who are sitting high up on the front of the vehicle, speaking Afrikaans into their radios and giving us a wealth of information in perfect English. Evening safaris are fun because they stop to see the sunset, and serve drinks and snacks. It makes you feel as if you are in a really good movie. After a gin and tonic (I was told that was a must on any safari) I asked if I could dispose of the lemon wedge on the ground. It was a good thing I asked because the answer was a firm no. Lemons are not part of the Kruger Park ecosystem.
When we saw our leopard, night had already fallen, and it was walking casually up a hill. It looked very well fed. Our tracker put a spotlight on it, with a red filter, so we could see it clearly without bothering it. Sometimes leopards are black, but the one we saw was a deep gold with black spots, which are called rosettes. Male leopards weigh about 60 kilos, and females usually between 35 to 40 kilos. Leopards mostly hunt between sunset and sunrise, and they have a broad diet just as we humans do. They eat beetles, birds, monkeys, reptiles, rodents and any other thing that is available, but their favorite food is medium-sized ungulates. Ungulates are animals that have hooves. When a leopard kills an ungulate, it only needs to kill again after 7 – 12 days, giving it plenty of time to sleep, just like my house cats. They like to spend their time in trees and caves, and are not at all impressed by people like me who pay money to see them.
Actually, we had seen a carcass of something that appeared to be an impala hanging in a tree the day before we actually spotted the leopard. Leopards need great strength to hide their meals in trees, and can sometimes carry an animal weighing 2 or 3 times their weight up into a tree, but it must be worth the effort to keep their kill away from hyenas. And not only are they strong, they are fast and springy. They can run at up to 58 km/h and can leap 6 meters through the air, and/or 3 meters straight up. They can also hear 5 times more sounds than humans can. Lions, which are larger than leopards, occasionally hunt and eat leopards, but leopards do not go after lions. This might be because leopards are solitary cats and hunt alone. However, they do communicate with each other. They growl when angry, and purr when happy and relaxed, just like a domestic cat. And the males cough in a hoarse, raspy way when they want another male to be aware of their presence. A group of leopards is called a leap of leopards, but I don’t know if anyone has ever seen a leap of leopards in a natural habitat. They are survivors and very adaptable, which is why different kinds of leopards can be found in so many parts of the world.
Leopard sex is not fun. The Males have barbs on their sex organs that probably stimulate ovulation but also cause the female pain. (So do domestic cats, which is why those of us who live in cities often hear a lot of cat copulation noise.) Female leopards often attack the male after copulation is over. But in spite of the lack of comfort, a leopard pair sometimes mates more than 100 times a day. However, females only give birth once every couple of years. Then she produces one to four cubs, and not all of those survive. Although the mother hides them well, baboons, hyenas, lions and other leopards often steal them for a meal. The father does not stick around to help the mother, and she has to hunt for them and care for them until they are about 2 years old, at which time they go off on their own and begin their own solitary lives. Because leopards hunt alone, they need to survive on stealth and intelligence. They do mark their own territories, leaving scratches on trees, urine scents and their droppings to warn other leopards to stay away. Males and females usually cross each other’s territories only to mate.
I found out that black leopards are not a separate species. They are just leopards with normal spots but their background fur is dark, and when they are dark they are usually called panthers. Scientists call them melanistic leopards because they simply have more pigmentation in their fur. Don’t ask about pink panthers if you go on a safari; they don’t really exist. Sometimes, a spotted leopard and a black panther can be born in the same litter and that is something you should know before you go to Africa. You should probably also know about jaguars before you go to Africa, at least enough so that you won’t ask questions about them while you are there. Jaguars are the leopard-looking big cats that inhabit North and South America and are not found in Africa or Asia. They are a little bit different in size; jaguars are larger, more muscular and love water. Leopards can swim but usually avoid water. Jaguars have a much stronger bite and can bite and crush the skull of an animal. Leopards usually go for the throat of their kill and suffocate it, and have much longer tails than jaguars, which helps them get their kill up into a tree. The leopards we see in Africa are the smallest species of the big cats; lions, tigers, cheetahs, jaguars and panthers.
I was born near the end of WWII and raised in a small town in New Jersey, just a little more than a 30-minute drive from NYC. It was a wonderful place to be brought up, feeding ducks and canoeing on the river that meandered through the town in the summer, and ice-skating on that same river in the winter.
My two brothers and I were privileged to be raised in a lovely town that was safe to explore on foot, but close enough to NYC to be taken there on day trips to see the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Baily B & B circus, museums, Chinatown, street fairs in the spring and Broadway shows as we grew older. But we thought nothing of it.
Later as teens, we would go into NYC to buy a couple of beers (the drinking age in New York State was 18, and 21 in New Jersey) and hang out in Greenwich Village where we saw singers such as Bob Dylan who were on the first rung of the ladder on their way to fame.
The sixties were a time of speaking out and creating change. I decided to do my part by joining the Peace Corps, an innovative cold war program established by John F. Kennedy in 1961. I arrived in Brazil at the end of 1966, and after an adaptation period, was sent to serve in Porto Nacional, in what was Goias at that time. I can’t say I changed the course of the country, especially as I was immediately called upon to teach English in the local high school.
I have been teaching ever since; high schools, college literature, college language pedagogy, financial English and everything in-between. I married a wonderful Brazilian from Rio and we had 3 boys and moved around some, as he was an engineer who worked on hydro dams. Nowadays I am a widow and live in BH with 3 cats, one of which has extraordinary powers, and I have 4 wonderful and uniquely different grandchildren nearby. Thus far, I have had an interesting life, and this new endeavor called a blog should make it even more interesting.