by Whit Gibbons

May 5, 2013

The leopard is the most graceful of Africa's potentially deadly creatures and is feared throughout the continent. They do not consider humans to be special, aside from their being easy prey that don't bite or scratch and can't even run fast.

Leopards usually ignore people who remain quietly inside an automobile, even an open safari vehicle. I owe some remarkably close-up photographs of leopards from such a vehicle to an outstanding South Africa safari guide named Frank Watts. Frank refers to the leopard as the "celebrity of Africa" because of its graceful demeanor and unrivaled elegance. If the beasts of Africa selected a runway model, the leopard would be the uncontested winner.

Frank's extensive knowledge of the ecology and behavior of animals in the African bush led to many educational insights. Upon my noting that a troop of chacma baboons we were watching had fascinating social behavior but also some unsavory physical habits, he asserted that "baboons will challenge your love of animals." If we happened to encounter a lion while we were on foot, he advised us "not to run because it changes your status." Regarding the African buffalo, one of the primary killers of lions (and people on foot), Frank said, "a buffalo looks at you like you owe him money."

Frank Watts has also written a book ("The Other Animals of the Kruger National Park"). In it he recounts some of his many adventures--with animals and with people. He notes that during his 17 years at Kruger "six of my friends and colleagues [were] killed" by leopards, "the prince of predators." One even jumped into an open safari vehicle and mauled the guide. I learned of that incident only after I had taken my own photos of wild leopards from an open safari vehicle. I think those pictures will have to suffice.

In one story Frank tells of taking a couple on a weeklong safari in which they encountered virtually all the large animals found there, except one—the leopard. The couple told Frank they had come to South Africa many times but had never seen a wild leopard. Their last few visits to the country had been for the sole purpose of seeing one. Frank Watts would clearly be a good choice of guides for achieving that goal. But during the week, no luck.

The couple was to leave early the next morning. Late that night Frank heard the "sawing" of a leopard, "the deep-throated sound [that is] unmistakable to those who know it." Loading the couple into a safari vehicle, Frank left the safety of the camp compound, where visitors are protected from outside predators by tall electric fences, to pursue the long-awaited sighting. Indeed they found it, watched it, listened to it growl, and watched it some more. Satisfied after a quest of many years, the couple were ready to start back. To their dismay, when Frank turned the key in the ignition, the motor would not start. After several terrifying minutes sitting in an open vehicle with a big cat lying a few feet away in the surrounding darkness, Frank made a decision. With only a small flashlight to light his way, he walked back to the camp. There, he got another vehicle and returned to where the couple were waiting. Fortunately, they were unharmed and the adventure had a happy ending. But as Frank says, "It was the longest 300-meter journey in history."

Frank Watts was also the safari guide when a National Geographic crew filmed an extraordinary life-or-death struggle between three of the continent's most ferocious beasts--African buffalos, lions, and crocodiles. The remarkable footage simultaneously depicts "nature, red in tooth and claw" and the power of parental care and social cohesion. You can see for yourself the "Battle at Kruger" on YouTube, May not be suitable for young children or squeamish adults.

To order Frank's book, go to And when you go to South Africa, get Frank for your safari guide. Maybe you'll get to see a leopard.

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