Planet Earth

South African wildlife - Safari the leopard

Not Exactly Rocket ScienceBy Ed YongOct 4, 2009 2:00 PM

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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.

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