Giving leopards a fighting chance

Guide Matt Smith proves that every bit helps when it comes to leopard conservation…

I recently overheard a guest asking some of our guides if (gasp) they ever get tired of going out on game drives. It’s a fair question, since our guides and trackers do spend seven or eight hours a day, every day, in their safari vehicles for six (sometimes even nine) weeks at a time.

Demanding schedule aside, the answer was a resounding no, never! No two places, no two days and in fact no two drives are ever the same when you’re on safari. That’s the beauty of Mother Nature and the reason why you will, I guarantee, suffer from FOMO (fear of missing out), if you skip a game drive. That one morning you opt for a lazy lie-in will undoubtedly be the morning your vehicle witnesses something as epic as this…

This totally unexpected brawl broke out last month at &Beyond Ngala Private Game Reserve in South Africa, as two sibling leopards battled briefly, yet fiercely, over a hoisted kill. I have never seen (or heard) anything like it. So, when I visited our brand new lodge, &Beyond Tengile River Lodge in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve, just a few days later, I already had leopards on the brain.

In addition to its newly built luxe and spacious accommodation in the most tranquil of settings, &Beyond Tengile’s undeniable draw card is its incredibly high density of leopards, of which we were fortunate to see plenty. If you have been to the Sabi Sand Game Reserve (or perhaps you haven’t, but you’re a big cat enthusiast), you will know that this picturesque part of the world is famed for its leopard viewing.

The Sabi Sand leopards are well habituated and completely relaxed around safari vehicles allowing for some unforgettable and unbelievably close-up sightings. This relaxed proximity is in part due to the fact that many generations of these big cats were born in the area and have grown up around safari vehicles, but it is also thanks to the strict and sensitive viewing guidelines that responsible safari operators and expert guides adhere to.

There’s no denying that our guides and trackers at &Beyond Tengile River Lodge and its neighbouring sister lodge, &Beyond Kirkman’s Kamp, are passionate about leopards. They visibly light up when they are able to spoil their guests regularly with close encounters with these magnificent cats. Leopards are elusive creatures, so to see one in the wild is a rare privilege — I know people that have lived in South Africa their entire lives and have never seen a leopard.

Enter unexpected cat fight #2. Having seen this extraordinary footage of yet another grumpy leopard scuffle, this time between mother and daughter, right on the front lawn (!) of &Beyond Kirkman’s Kamp, I was looking forward to getting the full behind-the-scenes story from Matt Smith, the &Beyond guide that was fortunate enough, not only to see, but also to successfully capture the surprising showdown.

Matt has been guiding for &Beyond for nearly five years, and although his career started at &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve, he now calls the Sabi Sand home and works between &Beyond Tengile and Kirkman’s Kamp. If you plan to visit either lodge, and you’re fascinated by leopards, I encourage you to chat to Matt about the work he is doing in aid of leopard conservation. He knows the area’s leopards well and can certainly tell you a story or two.

Clearly passionate about wildlife conservation, Matt volunteered to assist with the ongoing leopard research programme currently being carried out in the area by Panthera. Indisputably the global authority on big cats, Panthera is the only organisation in the world that is devoted exclusively to the conservation of the world’s 40 wild cat species and their threatened ecosystems.

In an effort to help secure the future of Africa’s leopards, &Beyond and Panthera actually have a longstanding relationship that dates all the way back to 2002, when we partnered together to successfully complete a ten-year localised study of leopards on &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve. To this day, it remains the most extensive leopard research ever conducted in the world. Read all about the decade-long study here.

Our ongoing collaboration with Panthera continues, this time further north in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve, where a comprehensive leopard database is being meticulously recorded. Most lodges that occupy large traversing areas within the reserve are all taking part in this joint collaboration by documenting all of their daily leopard (and other wildlife) sightings within a central database.

Matt explains, “Leopards are so prolific in this area, and given that they are so well habituated and are being seen on a regular basis, this makes them the perfect control population on which to base a leopard study. These leopards are arguably the most well documented and well researched density of leopards in the world.”

Matt’s role is to gather and document all of the daily wildlife sightings viewed by the &Beyond guides and trackers on our specific traversing area. Although leopards remain the main focus of this study, sightings and associated data for many other high profile species (for example, the Big Five, African wild dog, cheetah, ground hornbill, saddle-billed storks, martial eagles, etc.) are also recorded in the database.

As much information as possible is recorded for each and every sighting, including: the date; time; GPS coordinates; the individual leopard’s identifying name and/or unique markings (spot patterns, whiskers, a tear in the ear, etc.); gender; approximate age; whether it was seen mating (and if so, with which individual, where, etc.) or feeding (and if so, on what type of kill and was it hoisted, were there scavengers present, etc.); its general movements and social dynamics; and so on. Scat samples are also collected and motion-sensor camera traps regularly document otherwise unseen movements and activity.

This constant flow of extensive and accurate real-time data is collected from all participating lodges and research teams at the end of every month. The data is then carefully analysed by Panthera and distributed back to all research teams in the form of in-depth quarterly and annual reports. To give you an idea of the stats being generated, in one month alone, more than 3 000 unique sightings of 18 different species were captured by 19 different lodges. Of those 3 000+ sightings, nearly 1 200 were unique leopard sightings.

These crucial and invaluable findings about the specific mating behaviour, diet, territory, social dynamics, prey preference, etc. of the Sabi Sand leopard control group will help Panthera to influence governments to change policies to further protect leopard populations elsewhere and to encourage those living within close proximity of these big cats to join forces to give them a fighting chance at survival.


Come and witness the world-famous leopards of the Sabi Sand Game Reserve.


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