Zikomo Safari's bushcamp sits across the Luangwa River from South Luangwa National Park. The camp offers a breathtaking view of one of the premier wildlife viewing locations in all of Africa. Elephants, hippos, giraffe, miscellaneous antelope species, lions, painted dogs and leopard top the list of magnificent mammals that make their home here in Eastern Zambia.
South Luangwa is nicknamed the "Valley of the Leopard "and it certainly doesn't go by the nickname for nothing. It is not uncommon to see a leopard feeding on a kill in a tree, prowling riverine bush or boldly and unapologetically walking by a vehicle on safari.
By and large, these big cats have it made here in South Luangwa. But that is not the case everywhere. Ecotourists, conservationists and other admirers of the big cat, view leopard sightings and signs of leopard as awesome opportunities to observe the activities or indicators of activities of one of the most wide-ranging carnivores on the planet.
To the pastoralists tending to their herds of livestock, the leopard is viewed as a real and perceived threat to their livelihood. And many leopards are commonly killed in retribution in other parts of Africa. As humans continue to encroach and place stress on undisturbed and protected habitat and permit continued and exponential population growth, we find leopards increasingly implicated in human-wildlife conflict.
Today leopards are a conservation-sensitive species, found largely in fragmented habitat. This is not to say that they are hard to find, especially here where safeguarding big cats is a priority. Indeed, African leopards have disappeared from more than 35% of their historic range, but we feel fortunate to live amidst leopards where they are locally common.
Regardless of your perspective these beautiful, spotted big cats are remarkable creatures. They are incredibly strong, incredibly shrewd and incredibly variable in size, coat color and in the shape of their rosettes. Leopards are agile, highly adaptable to an array of habitats and prey species, and so cunning and nimble, that they can navigate a human-dominated landscape, and do it entirely undetected.
But if you think you have seen one leopard, you’ve seen them all—you are mistaken. Leopards exhibit such variability in body size and color across not only the African continent, but across Asia. The wide-ranging Afro-Asian species is diverse in itself. In fact, 10 subspecies were traditionally recognized in Africa alone, but recent genetic studies suggest one subspecies (Panthera pardus pardus) exists on the continent, while as many as 11 subspecies exist worldwide.
As recent, as the 1950’s as many as 27 leopard species were recognized worldwide, but advances in molecular genetics continue to help us document genetic diversity with greater precision. To give you some example of diversity, East African leopard populations exhibit rosettes that appear round or circular. But the populations here and elsewhere in southern Africa are known to exhibit rosettes that are square in shape. Regardless of rosette patterns and coat color, leopards are beautiful and we encourage you to visit us ASAP. Just don’t forget to bring your cameras!
Dr. Jordan Schaul is a board member of NWCF and a former contributor to National Geographic's editorial news publication News Watch:http://voices.nationalgeographic.com/author/jschaul/