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Tracking the Leopard
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Southern Africa

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By Kim Wolhuter

Silent as silk, a five-year-old spotted cat prowls his 14,000-acre (5,700-hectare) territory in the South African veld.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

Of the leopard, naturalist Maitland Edey wrote, “He is an animal of darkness, and even in the dark he travels alone.” Yet over the course of 19 months one male leopard in South Africa’s Mala Mala Game Reserve allowed me to become his companion. I named him Tjololo, a melding of words from the Swazi and Shangaan languages, which means “the one that stands alone.”

It can be a struggle to follow Panthera pardus in the bush, but years ago a veterinarian at neighboring Kruger National Park had implanted a tracking device in Tjololo to monitor his recovery after he was injured by a warthog. As a former park ranger, I was granted exclusive use of the implant’s frequency, allowing me to track Tjololo’s progress and gain his trust. Eventually I could get close enough to hear the rasping of tongue against paw as he groomed himself and the crashing of a branch as he marked it with facial-gland scent. Later he let me kneel in his path, eye to camera, as he strutted into the spotlight.

Mala Mala undulates with hills and gullies, its thick bush punctuated by patches of open ground. Some 35 leopards thrive on the reserve’s diverse prey, abundant fresh water (the Sand River runs through it), and natural cover. Hundreds more live in Kruger. Tjololo’s 14,000-acre (5,700-hectare) territory encompasses four females’ domains and accommodates the occasional young male seeking his own land. Leopards forgo no meal—fresh kill, carrion, even insects. At about 150 pounds (70 kilograms), five-year-old Tjololo is powerful, able to hoist an animal twice his weight into a tree. Out of scavengers’ reach, this impala will nourish him for days, while pools of rainwater quench his thirst. He’d emerge soaked from dew-coated grass, so I’d smile to see him sidestep puddles, catlike, to avoid wetting his feet.


Like all big cats, leopards face threats other than their natural competitors. Poachers and sport hunters take their toll, as do farmers who kill predators to protect livestock. Even more deadly is habitat loss. P. pardus is perhaps the most widespread of wild felines—living in much of Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia—but many leopards now exist in fragmented populations on the edges of human civilization. Although they are still abundant in sub-Saharan Africa, solid estimates of their numbers are lacking. Even where they seem to thrive, their future is far from secure.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

VIDEO Kim Wolhuter discusses getting cautiously close to a young male leopard. Click Here

AUDIO (recommended for low-speed connections)
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Hear the call of leopards resonating across South Africa’s Mala Mala Game Reserve.

Final Edit
The one that got away from our coverage of leopards is this month’s Final Edit.

Nature’s engineering and engineering nature—intriguing choices for desktop wallpaper.

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Tree House

No local firefighter is needed to get this agile big cat out of a tree. In fact, leopards often cache large kills in trees. Once the leopard has killed its prey, it will quickly drag the carcass up the nearest suitable tree. The spotted cat ascends the tree, holding the carcass in its jaws and using its sharp retractable claws to dig in and provide purchase on the bark so that it can climb. Great strength is required to achieve this—leopards have even been reported to cache carcasses of young giraffes, estimated to weigh about a quarter of a ton each, hauling them as high as 20 feet (6 meters) up trees.

However, leopards do not exhibit the arduous practice of caching everywhere. It is now accepted that this unique behavior evolved to prevent their hard-won meal from being stolen. If the leopard did not cache its prey, many more meals would be lost either to lions (which can be more than three times heavier than leopards) or to packs of hyenas or wild dogs that would quickly scent the fresh meat. By caching the prey in a tree, a leopard puts the kill out of reach. Dogs are unable to climb the tree trunk to steal the prey, and, while lions are climbers (though not as deft as leopards), their heavier weight is their downfall. A smart leopard will cache its prey in delicate branches too small to support a lion’s weight. The leopard has to tree its kill quickly, though, as it can lose it to scavengers on the way to the tree, or on the way up.

Interestingly, where hyena numbers are low, leopards seldom tree their kills, finding it easier to feed on the ground. If left unmolested by rival predators, a leopard prefers to eat on the ground, avoiding the exertion of hauling the carcass up a tree.

Spotted Fingerprint

Leopards’ spots are well known—they’re even celebrated in Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories. Besides being useful for camouflage and for confusing prey, the leopard’s spots have also been very helpful in broadening our understanding of this elusive and solitary cat.

All leopards have spots on their faces. Like our fingerprints, the pattern of these spots is unique to each animal. Some leopards have spots under their eyes, others in a necklace around the throat. Others have spots on their foreheads that form ovals or squares. The male leopard Tjololo featured in our story has a distinct U-shaped pattern of spots on his forehead.

These facial spots, along with other identifying features such as ripped ears (scars from battles with prey and/or rivals) allow researchers to instantly identify known animals. Photographer Kim Wolhuter used the U-shaped pattern of spots on Tjololo’s forehead, as well as his tattered ears (especially the right one) to confirm his identity.

—David O’Connor

Mala Mala Game Reserve
This website provides information about the Mala Mala Game Reserve, Tjololo’s home. You can even reserve a holiday there.

The World Conservation Union, Species Survival Commission, Cat Specialist Group, Leopards
This site gives a wealth of information about Panthera pardus, from its biology to its behavior to its principal threats.

Part of the larger AfriCam website. This section features Tjololo the male leopard and Kim Wolhuter, the author and photographer of National Geographic’s story.


Bailey, Theodore N. The African Leopard: Ecology and Behavior of a Solitary Felid. Columbia University Press, 1993.

Edey, Maitland, and John Dominis. The Cats of Africa. Time-Life Books, 1968.

Estes, Richard Despard. The Behavior Guide to African Mammals. University of California Press, 1991.

Hancock, Dale. A Time With Leopards. Black Eagle Publishing, 2000.


Klum, Mattias. “Asia’s Last Lions,” National Geographic (June 2001), 46- 61.

Chadwick, Douglas H. “Jaguars,” National Geographic (May 2001), 32-51.

Taylor-Ide, Jesse Oak. “In Search of the Clouded Leopard,” National Geographic (September 2000), 114-123.

Caputo, Philip. “Among the Man-Eaters,” National Geographic Adventure (May/June 2000), 74-94, 146-149.

Cahalane, Victor H. “King of Cats and His Court,” National Geographic (February 1943), 217-259.


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