Walking along the sandy track among the luscious wet-season vegetation just outside Tandala Camp, near Ruaha National Park, Tanzania, our accompanying Maasai taught us the Swahili names for some common African animals. Impala is swalapala, elephant is tembo and you might recognise simba, meaning lion, from The Lion King. Tandala itself means kudu.
The one sighting that we had during our long stay at Tandala that will stay with me for a long time, however, was of a male chui. We were lucky enough to see four feline species in the ten days we were there, including simba, African wildcat and serval. Chui was the other, and we were fortunate to have two sightings of the same individual, on Christmas Eve and 29th December. Chui is a widely-distributed but declining and elusive cat, and unlike most African cats can climb trees deftly. The Leopard.
Leopards are extremely tolerant of a wide range of habitats and climates. Most authorities recognise 8 Leopard subspecies, which inhabit the Middle East (Arabian and Persian Leopards); Asia & Russia (Sri Lankan, Indian, Javan, Amur and Indochinese Leopards); as well as the African Leopard. Throughout their global distribution they can be found in semi-arid landscapes, rainforests, grasslands, cities (in India particularly) and they can even tolerate temperatures as low as -25 °C in Russia. They are much better climbers than Cheetahs and Lions, and the habitat in which we saw the Leopard in Ruaha was fairly typical: boulder-strewn bush with some large trees up which they can haul their kills.
Despite a few vehicles being present, this leopard remained remarkably unperturbed by the attention. It even managed to hunt successfully, catching a rock hyrax right in front of our eyes, before proceeding to eat it under a bush just metres from our car. Although leopards have the strength to tackle large prey, they mainly favour prey with a lower mass than themselves. The day before our first sighting we came across an Impala that had been killed by a leopard just a few hours before; small to medium-sized antelopes that don’t prefer open plains are typical prey.
It was brilliant to have such superb sightings of a leopard, easily among my favourite large mammals. They are often shy, particularly where other large carnivores are present such as tigers and lions. Despite the competition between these large cats, all are heading towards a similar fate. Many of the leopard subspecies are on the brink of extinction as a result of hunting and habitat loss. The Javan, Amur and Arabian Leopards are all thought to have fewer than 250 individuals surviving and there are not that many more Persian, Sri Lankan or Indochinese Leopards remaining.