South African wildlife – Safari the leopard

By Ed Yong | October 4, 2009 10:00 am

Every weekend, I’m going to post new wildlife photos from our recent South African holiday. The vast majority will come from the four-day safari we went on, and what better way to start this series than with shots of an animal named Safari. She’s a leopard, and undoubtedly one of the highlights of the trip. We crossed her path twice and on both, she was totally unperturbed by our presence. On our second encounter, she even posed for pictures, sitting gracefully atop a termite mound bathed in a golden sunset.

If you’re wondering why this leopard in particular is so recognisable, here’s the answer. Safari is half-blind. Midway through her long life, she sustained a severe injury to her right eye that left it swollen, bloodshot and presumably sightless. You might think that for an ambush predator, the loss of depth perception would be a fatal impediment to hunting. But not so – Safari has lived with her botched orbit for at least six years. Our ranger told us that her health is now failing and she’s becoming increasingly skinny. Even so, at sixteen years, she’s very old for a wild leopard. Wildlife photographers often ignore her because of her eye but to us, it made her even more beautiful, a creature to admire for her handicap, not to pity because of it.

She’s also very tolerant of humans. The first time we saw her, we were watching her stalk a duiker (below) along with a convoy of two other jeeps. The vehicles kept a respectful distance, and she crept up to within 200m of the small antelope before making a run for it. The entire chase was over in seconds, with the duiker escaping.Our ranger tells us that Safari will often use the vehicles to help her hunt, following them at night and tackling any antelope that they accidentally blind with their headlights.

Incidentally, let your eyes relax on the photo above to get a sense of how superb her camouflage is.

Comments (12)

  1. I agree with your assessment of her beauty. Thank you for posting her picture and writing about her.

  2. Anon

    What areas did you visit, and when? (I only ask because I was also in SA recently–4 days in Kruger, then 3 in Cape Town & Stellenbosch.)

  3. DJ

    That last photo is a wonderful example of camoflage. Love it.

  4. The camouflage on animals is amazing. It doesn’t seem like it should work when you see the animal out of its environment.
    Our “sable” (agouti) colored German Shepherd Dogs were nearly impossible to see in a shaded forest setting. If we didn’t see in color it would have been all the more difficult. In the broad sunlight, in our yard, they stuck out dramatically.
    Great pictures. Beautiful leopard; being a predator is dangerous business.

  5. What a beautiful animal. How lucky for you to have come across her.

  6. I’m pleased to hear that Safari is still alive. I visited Elephant Plains in the Sabi Sand in December 2006 and we also saw her a number of times, including some great sightings of her with her two sub-adult cubs. As a photographer, the blind eye did worry me, so I appreciate the different perspective on her handicap.

  7. Ed Yong

    We were in Elephant Plains too! Absolutely incredible place. Scotch, I’m sad to say that the two most recent cubs have apparently died but their mum is still kicking. She’s getting thin though and the rangers think she’s not got long left. Still, she’s had a very good run of it.
    @Anon – we spent four days in Sabi Sands, flew to Port Elizabeth and then wound our way to Cape Town over the course of a week, taking in whales at Plettenberg Bay, Tsitsikamma, Knysna, ostriches and meerkats at Outdshoorn, the Swartberg Loop, Hermanus, Fransschoek and Stellenbosch. We rounded it off with three days in Cape Town.

  8. Wow, small world, I live in Stellenbosch. Hope you have a great adventure Ed.

  9. Bruce T.

    Thanks very much for posting this, well, inspirational entry about Safari the leopard.

  10. Hi Ed – looks like an brilliant trip.
    If you can remember your way through your archives, you’ll find lots of references to Indonesia and SE Asia. Have you been out here before? If not, how about next summer?
    An ‘Awesome Science Tour’ of Indonesia would be cool. I’m available 17th June – 4th July ;>
    See you here,
    Steve

  11. Claire-M.

    Hello Ed! Thank you for posting these good photos of Safari. She is quite a character.
    While writing this I’m watching one of her grandson, Induna (born middle November 2008), son of Karula (daughter born in March 2004). This is possible because of WildEarth.tv on the internet, 2 live safaris per day. An hour ago WE were with her other grandson of the same litter, Mixo.
    … at 7h22 a.m. C.A.T. Induna is reunited with his mother Karula on the road right in front us.
    http://www.wildearth.tv/web/djuma1?streamId=wildearth
    Next best thing to a life safari in the beautiful Sabi Sand Reserve in South Africa.
    Claire-M. from Québec city, Canada

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