Zambia: leopard spotting in South Luangwa National Park

Pay attention to the behaviour of the resident animals in Zambia's South Luangwa National Park and you'll have a better chance of spotting an elusive leopard in the wild

By Emma Gregg
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:19 BST, Updated 15 Jul 2021, 09:38 BST
Image: Emma Gregg
Image: Emma Gregg

On the topmost branch of a towering ebony tree in the Luangwa Valley, a baboon is going berserk "WAH-hu!" he yells. Two harsh syllables, delivered with a fierce, pointed stare. "WAH-hu! WAH-hu!"

He's clearly incensed, but not, apparently, by us. He's concentrating on something else, just beyond our line of vision.

"Could be a contact call," says Godfrey Shawa, our guide. "Maybe he's been separated from the troop." He lifts a well-worn pair of binoculars to his eyes and scans the ebony grove for clues. "On the other hand, maybe he's just seen a leopard."

My heart skips a beat. A leopard!

What is it that makes them so magnetic? You don't need to have one in clear sight to sense their enigmatic, exotic presence. Simply being in a leopard's territory and knowing that, somewhere, a pair of smoky-gold eyes might be watching you from the shadows is enough to set the pulse racing. To the uninitiated, their forest habitat may look as innocent as a bluebell wood in spring. But a leopard turns it into a place of hidden dangers and raw, edgy anticipation.

Godfrey steers our open-topped safari vehicle in the direction of the baboon's gaze and we peer intently into the foliage. There are no obvious signs: no paw prints or drag marks among the fallen leaves, no clawing on the trees. Nonetheless, if Godfrey's hunch is correct, a whiskered face or a rosette-spotted flank could appear at any moment.

The baboon falls silent. "Does that mean the leopard's gone?" I ask. "We'll never know," says Godfrey, and I feel my face fall.

It's a crushing disappointment. But what I don't yet realise is that on this particular safari, I'll encounter leopards almost every day — and almost every night, too. I'll be taught the tricks of the trade by local guides who know exactly how to beat the odds of finding these elusive cats. Often, we'll watch them from a vehicle as they peer down from trees, stalk along gullies or roll like tabby cats in the grass. Twice, astonishingly, we'll be on foot.

Anyone with a burning ambition to see leopards in the wild is likely to have heard of South Luangwa National Park in eastern Zambia. It's Zambia's top safari destination, with an abundance of wildlife. Huge numbers of hippos — the largest concentration in Africa — wallow and chortle in its rivers and pools, stretching their jaws into fearsome yawns when the day begins to cool. Elephant herds pad silently down to the margins to drink, then disappear back into the bush like a magic trick. Cape turtle doves coo rhythmically from the thickets, and from time to time, rare endemic species such as Thornicroft's giraffes and Cookson's wildebeest emerge, pause and stare.

The park's not a Big Five destination — its rhinos were eliminated by poachers in the 1980s and have yet to be reintroduced — but lions, elephants and buffaloes fare well here and, excitingly for me, it's a leopard-watching hotspot. Several local safari guides have made big cats their speciality, Godfrey Shawa among them. He's had such a high success rate over the years, he's been nicknamed the Leopard Magnet.

Pristine and remote, South Luangwa lies immediately northwest of one of Africa's greatest free-flowing rivers, the Luangwa, a major tributary of the Zambezi. Every year, the river floods, enriching the sandy soil and prompting growth so prolific that when Dr David Livingstone visited in 1866, he noted in his journal: 'It is impossible to describe its luxuriance.' In the early days of community-friendly photographic safaris, just under 100 years later, the pioneering hunter-turned-conservationist Norman Carr coined the term 'Emerald Season' to describe this time of plenty.

The floods have always limited the spread of permanent settlements within the Luangwa Valley, and so the resulting habitat is perfect for leopards. Up on the riverbanks, pretty little antelopes — impalas and pukus, the leopards' favourite prey — graze in grassy clearings, oblivious to the fact that the natural gullies and ancient, cathedral-like woodlands that surround them provide ample cover for secretive cats.

On previous visits, I've had fabulous leopard sightings, and now I'm returning, I've no reason to expect my luck to change. But as I fly into Mfuwe, the airstrip nearest to the park, I'm abuzz with uncertainty and excitement. What if the cats don't materialise at first? Is there a hack I can try? It's an open secret, for example, that big cats, which communicate through scent, adore the musky, civet-oil notes of Obsession For Men by Calvin Klein: zookeepers use toys sprayed with it and wildlife researchers spray it on camera traps to attract cats. Should I have stocked up at duty-free?

Instead, I relax and let nature lead the way. South Luangwa offers no golden-ticket promises, and that's part of its appeal. With a couple of dozen lodges and camps dotted in and around the park, there's no doubt that this is a wilderness managed with tourists in mind, but the wildlife is that extra bit wilder and the experience and surroundings feel authentic.

Most of the accommodation is both comfortable and satisfyingly low key, with genuine links to the local community, and while you have to work a little harder for your sightings than you would in a private reserve, the rewards are immense. As a bonus, there are several ways to explore. While bushwalks and long-distance walking safaris are South Luangwa's trademark, night drives are permitted too, allowing the chance to observe leopards at their most active. After-dark wildlife-watching with a spotlight is common practice in private reserves, but in a national park, it's a rare privilege and an experience to savour.

Call of the wild

"The best way to spot a leopard is to remember that however well hidden it is, at least one bird or animal may detect it," says Godfrey. "So watch and listen for unusual behaviour. If a flock of guinea fowl sounds the alarm and flies up into a tree, that means they've seen something on the ground. If, when you pass some pukus, they're all ignoring the vehicle, staring in the same direction and making their whistling alarm call, try to work out what they're watching. If there are no impalas in a clearing where there are normally plenty, or they've left a load of freshly fallen flowers uneaten under a sausage tree, ask yourself why. Look up. You never know what you might see!"

The animal that gifts us our first leopard sighting is a hyena. It's fidgeting at the foot of an age-worn mahogany tree. The annual rains have yet to break, and even in the shade, the heat and humidity are intense. A slight gamey whiff draws our eyes up into the branches, and there he is: a male. He's large, with magnificent rosettes, and guarding the remains of an impala. As he pants from the sheer effort of digestion, his whole body shakes.

Leopards are considerably smaller than lions, but males can weigh up to 90kg — as much as a grown man — and need just as much fuel. Masterly opportunists, they're eclectic eaters who will readily pounce on birds or even insects, but antelopes offer the best ratio of effort to reward. After a silent and sometimes lengthy stalk, they launch an explosive attack.

The hyena peers upward, hoping for scraps. While leopards use their strong jaw muscles, sharp claws, powerful back legs and low centre of gravity to hoist large carcasses into trees, hyenas are not built for climbing. Instead, they're relentless scavengers who harass leopards into dropping or abandoning their kill. The moment they hear an alarm call, signalling a leopard is hunting, they're on the case.

The something-is-watching-us feeling strikes once more when I'm exploring a dappled wood near Mwamba Bush Camp with Andrew Mweetwa from Shenton Safaris, a team which studies their part of the park in detail, including its cats. They give each leopard a name, and document their life history. "Leopards are creatures of habit," says Andrew. "If you learn everything you can about their territories and behaviour, you can shorten the search."

The previous day, Andrew tracked down Chipazua, a small, insouciant female, relaxing in her favourite clearing. With her kill slung in a nearby tree as casually as a coat on a hook, she looked supremely self-possessed. "She's the best hunter around, and she's always relaxed," said Andrew. "I've known her since she was a tiny cub. I'd love it if she had her own soon: having watched her throughout her life cycle, it would be wonderful to witness the next stage."

And now, we wind our way towards a large, leafy kigelia tree where, staring down like the Cheshire Cat, is Luambe. Named after his birthplace, a national park near South Luangwa, he's become a local patriarch. "He's a thief. Because he's so big, he steals from other leopards, and they all want to fight him. In theory his time's running out, but he's so smart, I think he might outlive his expiry date," says Andrew. "He's not the friendliest, or the nicest, or the best-looking leopard, but he's my favourite."

This isn't just a throwaway remark. South Luangwa's leopard population keeps the local community afloat by attracting high-paying photographic tourists, but with a ragged ear, a broken tooth, an injured leg and a malevolent look, Luambe is not obvious model material. On the other hand, he's not obvious trophy material either. The park is fringed by a Game Management Area where controlled, licensed hunting is permitted. Luckily for the likes of Luambe, the hunters are choosy.

But it's not only trophy hunting that harms South Luangwa's leopards — hunting the cats for contraband or food also pose a huge threat. And within the Game Management Area, poachers set snares for antelopes, depleting leopards' prey and occasionally injuring big cats by mistake.

However, a recent camera trap study by the Zambian Carnivore Programme, a research and conservation team led by American wildlife ecologist Matt Becker, revealed the leopard population outside the park, which is unfenced, is significantly less dense than within. Inside, the team counted between eight and nine leopards per 100sq km, and safari guides have observed that in certain areas, there's a territory every 2.5sq km — roughly twice the highest density recorded in South Africa's Kruger National Park.

During my trip I meet Rachel Robb, the tireless British founder of Conservation South Luangwa (CSL), which partners with the Zambian Carnivore Programme and the Zambia Wildlife Authority in promoting good practice. In CSL's modest exhibition centre, a 10ft stack of confiscated snares, crudely made from loops of wire, highlights the problems they face.

"There are plenty of frustrations," she says. "Previously, far more of South Luangwa's tourism income was reinvested locally. Now, public funds are tight. Poaching is on the increase and the government has a fight on its hands to stop Zambia being used as a smuggling hub for rhino horn and pangolin scales." CSL relies on no-strings-attached donations from individuals, safari businesses and conservation trusts to fund its vital operations, including anti-snaring patrols, wildlife rescue, aerial surveys, educational programmes and a dog unit, trained to detect contraband such as bushmeat, ivory and leopard skins. "I've witnessed first-hand the shocking snaring of hundreds of animals in and around this flagship park," says Rachel. "But luckily, we rescue many of them."

The Luangwa Valley's flourishing creative community is also pitching in. After chatting with Rachel, I drop into Tribe, the attractive new boutique and coffee shop created by long-running social enterprise Tribal Textiles. Among the beautifully painted cushion covers that are a South Luangwa trademark — every safari lodge has at least a few of them — I spot Mulberry Mongoose's range of conservation-friendly bracelets and necklaces, which help raise funds for CSL. They're crafted nearby using thread, driftwood beads and hand-hammered metal, sourced from confiscated snares.

Walk on

To truly bond with the South Luangwa wilderness, you need to get out of your vehicle and feel the sand beneath your feet. The quiet section southwest of Mfuwe is ideal: here, the Bushcamp Company operates half a dozen intimate, low-impact luxury camps. Arranged like a string of beads on the Kuyenda, Luangwa and Kapamba rivers, they're mostly rebuilt from scratch each year once the floodwaters subside. Natural materials give them rustic texture and they're surrounded by woodland where every hoot, rustle and chirp promises something incredible.

On my journey to Bushcamp's Zungulila Camp, we stop beside the Luangwa to stretch our legs. Nesting carmine bee-eaters whizz over our heads and across shining water like brightly coloured paper darts. A few steps from our vehicle, head guide Manda Chisanga raises his binoculars and beckons for me to do the same. On an open stretch of riverbank around 1,600ft downstream, a female leopard has draped herself elegantly on the sand. It feels auspicious.

The following day begins with a rose-gold sunrise. Setting out on a gentle bushwalk with a porter and an armed scout, we sniff at medicinal plants and listen to the drumbeat-boom of ground hornbills, going through their morning routine.

Suddenly, an impala snorts in the middle-distance. Scanning quickly, Manda spots leopard tracks, and we're immediately on high alert.

An impala belts across the clearing up ahead, and we freeze.

"When you're moving upwind and you see something running like hell, there could be a predator on the move," whispers Manda.

The trail leads into a thicket where russet-coloured mopane leaves scrunch underfoot and there's a buzzing sound in the air. "Those bees sound pretty angry," says Manda. "Let me check."

The thud as he ventures into the trees — a leopard, making a hasty escape — is a sound I'll never forget.

On our night drive that evening, a gruff, rasping call cuts through the darkness, sending shivers down my spine. Like lions, tigers and jaguars, leopards have a flexible bone structure in their neck, which allows their voice box to vibrate in a distinctive territorial roar.

The male in question is pacing the perimeter of his territory. We catch sight of his hindquarters and follow eagerly for a while, until vegetation partly obscures him. "Sometimes, it's worth gambling one sighting on the chance of another," says Manda, as he steers the vehicle into a shortcut. It's a winning move. A few turns later, we spot the leopard once more, face on.

For one, delicious moment, we admire his muscular frame, and he seems to cast us an imperious glance. Then, with an up-flick of his long, spotted tail, he slinks away into the silky-black night. 


Getting there & around

Flight options from London to Lusaka include Kenya Airways via Nairobi, Ethiopian Airlines via Addis Ababa and British Airways via Johannesburg.    

Proflight Zambia flies from Lusaka to Mfuwe. 

When to go

While the best time to visit South Luangwa is between July and September, with dry weather and manageable temperatures of around 28C, the rainy season from December to June can also be enjoyable for its green landscapes and abundant birds.

Places mentioned

More info

Zambia by Chris McIntyre. RRP: £18.99 (Bradt Travel Guides)

How to do it

Yellow Zebra Safaris offers a nine-day safari in South Luangwa from £5,219 per person in high season, based on two sharing, excluding international flights. The price includes full-board accommodation with The Bushcamp Company, domestic flights, private transfers, park fees and activities. 

Tribes Travel can arrange an eight-day safari in South Luangwa with Shenton Safaris from £4,640 per person (£5,325 Aug-Sep), based on two sharing, excluding international flights. Full-board accommodation at Kaingo Camp and Mwamba Bush Camp, domestic flights, private transfers, park fees and activities are included.

Published in the September 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)>


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