Botswana’s Big Cats (Part 1 of 3)

1st up: Leopard (Panthera pardus)

Location: Santawani Concession – operated by the local community and location of Botswana’s Predator Conservation Program.

This is our first game drive of the safari and our guide, Owen, is driving us through the Santawani Concession near Sankuyo Bush Camp.  I’ve heard that this area is rich with predators like lions and leopards, but I’m not expecting to see any on our first drive.  I thought we’d have to work harder at finding these elusive predators.

About an hour in, we see a couple of vehicles situated under an acacia tree.  We pull up alongside and scan the tree for a glimpse of what is holding their attention.  After a few moments, we see the characteristic rosette spots on light-colored fur and the sleek, feline shape – a leopard.  And better yet, a leopard with its forepaws wrapped around a meal of fresh warthog!

Leopard feeding on warthog - Santawani Concession, Botswana
Leopard feeding on warthog - Santawani Concession, Botswana

Leopards are the most widespread of the big cats, found in virtually every habitat from tropical rain forest to desert to temperate forests.  A leopard’s preferred prey varies, but those that live in open areas of Africa prefer to hunt roaming herds of herbivores.  A warthog qualifies as an African herbivore.  Leopards typically hunt alone and their brute strength allows them to pull prey into trees, out of reach of other predators like lions and hyenas wanting to steal their meal.  Hunting at night also gives them a competitive edge.

Spotted hyena (Photo by Kay Trotman)
Spotted hyena (Photo by Kay Trotman)

As we sit and watch the leopard feeding, two spotted hyenas come into sight.  Something about hyenas always sends chills up my spine.  I think it’s their crouched stance while stalking and notorious laugh.  Either way, this is getting good.  The more aggressive of the two stands under the leopard waiting for a piece of warthog to fall from above.  Moments later, the hyena gets what it’s asking for – a scrap of warthog drops from the tree, and an enthusiastic hyena runs off with its reward.  I swear it has a smile on its face.

The leopard continues to feed, we continue to watch, taking photos and video to record our luck, and the day’s light continues to fade.  The Santawani Concession is already living up to its hype as a predator playground.


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