As elusive as they are beautiful, leopards are the bane of safari guides across Africa.
Not only are they secretive animals, their liquid gold and rosette dotted fur makes them masters of stealth in the jungles and woodlands. At the Sabi Sand Game Reserve however, leopards are frequent visitors and are not adverse to the prying eyes of strangers.
Located in north eastern South Africa, the Sabi Sands Game Reserve epitomises Africa’s enthralling beauty in its blissful corner of 65 hectares. To get here as quickly and comfortably as possible, we recommend you take a 50 minute flight from Johannesburg to Skukuza and, from here, a 40 minute drive to the reserve. It’s an incredibly scenic journey that perfectly introduces you to Africa’s diverse and beautiful landscape from both air and road. Once you have reached Sabi Sands Game Reserve, you will quickly discover that its defining and most enduring feature is its uninhibited and diverse ecosystem. There are no restrictions, or interventions to get in the way of the natural order and the animals can move freely throughout the region. You could even wake up one morning with an elephant outside your door!
The Sabi Sands Game Reserve is home to the ‘big five’, a popular term used to refer to Africa’s most popular wildlife. Lions roaming the open plains in their pride and rhinoceros congregating in front of your eyes are a sight to behold, but there’s one animal in particular that shares a unique bond with Sabi Sands. Leopards, the most elusive of the big cats and normally solitary creatures, are much easier to spot in the brushwood than they are in many other leopard reserves. They still favour a big tree, which they use as an observation platform or a resting place, but you can get within two metres of them before they run away. This unique, relaxed reaction is the result of the ban on hunting, which has lasted for over half a century. Several generations of leopards have never heard a gunshot, or had a reason to fear humans, so their passive attitude is a mixture of indifference and comfort.
Of the numerous leopards that live in and around the Sabi Sands Game Reserve, many are part of a special family tree that extends back to 1972, when filmmaker John Varty met and filmed an extremely tolerant mother leopard. This observation and bond, lasted for 12 years, during which time Varty began to document the leopard’s offspring. Now in its 4th decade, the Londolozi ancestry list accounts for most of the cats that inhabit the region. The leopards can be identified using the spot patterns on their cheeks above the upper line of their whiskers, counted first on the right cheek and then the left, giving you two numbers, which will then correspond with one of the leopards in the Londolozi database. Some leopards may share the same numbers and it’s in this instance that the experts also look for additional features to discern their heritage.
Of course, trying to figure out the number of spots on a leopard’s face while he, or you, are moving can be just a tad tricky! So either leave close-up counting to the experts, or take a photo and tot them up later when you can also compare with fellow spotters in the lodge bar.