Despite the fact that they are found throughout Southern Africa and have the widest distribution of any wild cat, leopards are also the most elusive of Africa's big cats - and the hardest member of the Big Five to find. This is due to their solitary nature and the fact that as ambush hunters, they deliberately stay out of sight in areas with thick bush and plenty of trees. In many parts of their range, leopards are nocturnal. Habitat loss, poaching and conflict with farmers have all contributed to a decline in global numbers; however, there are still some safari destinations that are known for their healthy leopard populations. In addition to visiting these leopard hot spots, top tips for finding them include booking night drives, remembering to look up (leopards spend much of their time resting in trees) and listening for the alarm calls of prey animals such as antelope and baboons.
South Luangwa National Park, Zambia
South Luangwa National Park is located in east Zambia, in the Luangwa Valley. The area is also known as the Valley of the Leopard - an appropriate moniker given that it boasts Africa's highest concentration of the majestic spotted cats. Estimates suggest that there is one leopard for every two square kilometers. South Luangwa is ideal leopard territory for two reasons - its incredible abundance of prey animals and its dense woodland habitat, which provides the cover necessary for ambush attacks. The leopards of South Luangwa are famously bold and can often be seen in the daytime, resting in trees and even hunting in clear sight of safari vehicles. Unusually for a national park, night drives are allowed, thereby increasing your chances of seeing a leopard in action. The park is also known for its walking safaris. For the best sightings, go in the late dry season (August to October) when animals congregate near waterholes and leopards are easiest to find.
Sabi Sands Game Reserve, South Africa
South Luangwa may have the densest population of leopards but if there's one place in Africa that's world-famous for its leopard sightings, it's South Africa's Sabi Sands Game Reserve. It's located on the western edge of Kruger National Park, with which it shares an unfenced boundary. Rangers at Londolozi Lodge in the heart of the reserve have been studying the park's leopards for more than four decades and are able to recognize resident cats individually. Their in-depth knowledge about each cat's habits and territories gives you a very good chance of a close encounter. Londolozi have 20 named leopards on their database but have recorded over 50 individuals in the area over a 11-month period including visiting nomads. Some of the best sightings happen on sunset game drives, and if a leopard is spotted, rangers are allowed to go off-road to get into a better position. The lodge also offers specialist big cat photography safaris for those keen on honing their camera skills.
Moremi Game Reserve, Botswana
There are many excellent places to spot leopards in Botswana, the best of which are located around the edges of the Okavango Delta. They include the Savuti and Linyati reserves (in between the Okavango and Chobe National Park), but for many experts, the single best destination is Moremi Game Reserve. Situated in the eastern section of the Delta, it is home to the Khwai River Region, where permanent water pools attract plenty of game and thick woodland allows leopards to creep up on their prey undetected. Leopard are so abundant here that daytime sightings are practically commonplace. If you do want to experience a night safari, you'll need to stay outside the reserve on a private concession like the luxury Khwai River Lodge. At least one night drive is recommended, if only for the thrill of scanning the dark for a pair of eyes shining in the spotlight. Moremi Game Reserve and its surrounding concessions are also home to lion and cheetah as well as the endangered African wild dog.
Maasai Mara, Kenya
Although Kenya's Maasai Mara National Reserve is traditionally more famous for its lion prides, there's a reason that legendary documentary Big Cat Diaries filmed leopards there too. To see them, avoid the open grasslands where lion and cheetah reign and head instead to the region's wooded riverine areas. All kinds of predator sightings increase from July to November, when millions of wildebeest and zebra migrate northwards from the Serengeti and into the Mara Triangle. The young and sick make easy pickings for hungry leopards. When choosing a place to stay, consider Angama Mara which focuses on leopard encounters and conservation. Visitors can contribute to the lodge's photographic identification database, which increases leopard knowledge and sightings. Since the beginning of 2018, 22 leopards have been recorded on the database. Like Moremi, the Maasai Mara itself does not allow night drives. For after-dark leopard sightings, book a few nights in a private conservancy.
Okonjima Nature Reserve, Namibia
For near-guaranteed leopard sightings, head to Okonjima Nature Reserve in northern Namibia. Located in the foothills of the Omboroko Mountains, the reserve is home to The AfriCat Foundation which rehabilitates injured predators, conducts research and carries out community education initiatives. Rescued leopards roam freely throughout the 200 square kilometer reserve and wear radio tracking collars as part of a density research project. Although some safari purists may not like the idea of being led to a sighting by satellite, it's a great way to get close while contributing to conservation efforts at the same time. You can also track cheetah on foot or sign up for a night drive for the chance to see caracals, aardwolves, brown hyenas and bat-eared foxes. Nocturnal hides and floodlit waterholes at some of the bush villas and camps also give you the chance of spotting leopards from the comfort of your own temporary home. Finally, AfriCat also have a fund-raising carnivore adoption program.