The Best Safari Destinations In Africa To See Leopards
Leopards are the ultimate cats: stealthy, solitary and well-camouflaged nocturnal hunters with black-on-gold rosette coats, a pugilistic build and a cussedly badass persona. The most widespread of Africa’s Big Five (a safari wish list that also includes lions, rhinos, elephants and buffalos), leopards display a habitat tolerance that encompasses the parched Kalahari sands, the muggy Congolese rainforest, and everything in between. Yet despite being present in most African safari destinations, this spectral cat is perhaps the most eagerly sought member of the Big Five, and it remains furtive and elusive except in a few select locations where it has become habituated to cars.
Greater Kruger, South Africa
Running for more than 200 miles from north to south, the immense Kruger National Park is probably the last major African reserve to host significant breeding populations of all the Big Five. It is the centerpiece of the Greater Kruger, a vast trans-frontier ecosystem that incorporates a string of South African private reserves with which it shares open borders.
The national park itself is a top-notch self-drive safari destination where leopards are seen with reasonable frequency and tend to be very habituated, especially along the surfaced road that follows the Sabie River between Skukuza and Lower Sabie rest camps. But for near-guaranteed close-up encounters with this enigmatic spotted cat, you need to book into one of the private reserves along the park’s western border.
When it comes to quality leopard encounters, the pick of Great Kruger’s private reserves is undoubtedly MalaMala, where I’ve yet to miss out over the course of a dozen or so game drives. Neighbouring Sabi Sand Private Reserve, which incorporates the world-famous Londolozi, Singita and Sabi Sabi, is almost as good for leopards, but carries a heavier tourist traffic. I’ve also had superb leopard sightings in the more northerly Timbavati and Klaserie private game reserves, both also part of Greater Kruger
Top tip: For those who want to avoid any risk of catching malaria, Madikwe Game Reserve in malaria-free North-West Province doesn’t quite match Greater Kruger in extent, but it is also quite reliable for leopard sightings.
Luangwa Valley, Zambia
Rivalling Greater Kruger as Africa’s ultimate leopard hotspot, Luangwa is a relatively shallow southern extension of the Great Rift Valley dominated by the river for which it is named. It supports a quartet of national parks, the largest and most famous of which, South Luangwa, ranks as one of Africa’s truly great all-round safari destinations.
Expertly guided walking safaris are a specialty of South Luangwa, but the park is also renowned for its superb night drives, which almost invariably yield at least one leopard. It goes without saying that no two night drives or leopard sightings in South Luangwa are ever the same, but it was the setting for one of my most memorable encounters: a subadult male and larger adult male that almost came to blows over a dead antelope killed by the former but hijacked by the latter, who then dragged it up into a tree for safekeeping.
Top tip: Smaller and less developed than its southern counterpart, North Luangwa National Park is fabulous for truly off-the-beaten-track walking safaris, almost as reliable as South Luangwa when it comes to leopards, and the only place in Zambia where you might see rhinos.
Lower Zambezi National Park, Zambia
Zambia’s other great leopard-viewing destination, Lower Zambezi is named after southern Africa’s largest river, which meanders along the park’s southern boundary as it flows west from Kariba Dam towards Mozambique. Dominated by this wildly beautiful waterway, the park is best known for the opportunity to canoe past pods of grunting hippos, herds of elephant and other thirsty terrestrial wildlife, and an astonishing variety of aquatic birds.
Rather less well known is that Lower Zambezi is almost on a par with South Luangwa when it comes to productive night drives. It’s not uncommon for lodges deep in the park to notch up consecutive daily leopard sightings for a week or even a fortnight, or to have three or four encounters with different individuals in one evening.
My first night drive in Lower Zambezi is one of the most memorable I’ve ever been on. Not only did I enjoy glimpses of porcupine, serval, African wild cat, civet and genet, but I was lucky enough to enjoy two separate sightings of a leopard on an arboreal kill – its presence betrayed on both occasions by a hyena padding around the base of the trunk hoping to scavenge on any falling scraps of meat.
Top tip: Many lodges in Lower Zambezi actually stand outside the national park boundaries, and while these make great bases for general game viewing and canoeing, night drives tend to be less reliable for leopards than lodges deeper into the park.
Serengeti National Park, Tanzania
On the face of it, the open grasslands of the Serengeti don’t form the most promising habitat for a secretive creature that favors tangled vegetation where it can slink around undetected. But, while it’s true that the most conspicuous large carnivores here are plains-dwellers such as lion, cheetah and spotted hyena, I’ve never failed to see a leopard on at least 10 Serengeti safaris. The best place to look for leopards is the thin ribbon of umbrella thorn and sausage trees that lines the central Seronera Valley. Serengeti is also scattered with well-wooded clusters of rocky hills known as koppies, each of which forms a microhabitat suited to non-plains wildlife such as leopards.
Top tip: The leopards of Seronera Valley frequently spend their daylight hours lazing high in the isolated trees that line the Seronera River. Look out for a tell-tale twitch of a tail dangling below the canopy.
Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya
As is the case with the neighbouring Serengeti, the Masai Mara offers superb all-round carnivore viewing, so much so that is where all the lion, cheetah and leopard footage for the nature documentary Big Cat Diary was shot. You’re unlikely to spend long on the open plains of the Masai Mara without encountering a lion pride or pacing cheetah. Leopards, as always, tend to be slightly more elusive, but I’ve yet to be more than a couple of days there without lucking a sighting.
Top tip: Parts of the Masai Mara become very crowded over August and September, when the wildebeest migration crosses into the reserve from Tanzania. To avoid the crowds, book into a private concession bordering the reserve, or visit at another time of year.