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LIVING WITH LEOPARDS

Travel with AFRICA GEOGRAPHIC STORIES

One of the most popular requests from safari tourists to their guides is to see leopards. This is a tough task, even for the most experienced of guides, due to the elusive and cunning nature of these big cats. But there is a town called Hoedspruit, near the Kruger National Park in the Limpopo Province of South Africa, where having leopards in your garden is, well, the norm.

The residents of Hoedspruit Wildlife Estate (HWE), a fenced lifestyle ‘suburb’ of this bushveld town, are blessed with regular sightings of leopards. Fences pose no problems for these lithe felines as they come and go at will.

HWE is 680ha in extent, with half consisting of undeveloped bushveld and the other half consisting of residential homes. Various species such as impalas, giraffes, wildebeest, zebras and warthogs call this estate home, as well as a host of smaller species such as mongooses, genets, porcupines and civets. And then there are the predators that come and go at will, often making use of holes dug under the fence by aardvarks and warthogs.

We asked HWE resident and self-confessed leopard junkie Villiers Steyn a few questions about what it is like to live with leopards in your garden:

Africa Geographic (AG): Let’s get to the scary bit first, have people been attacked by leopards in HWE, and how do you stay safe while out walking in the estate?
Villiers Steyn (VS): I’m not aware of any attacks on humans. They have, however, surprised quite a few residents by suddenly appearing in their gardens. My wife and I have been lucky enough to encounter them on foot and I’ve even cycled past one as well. I believe it’s perfectly safe to walk around the estate during the day, but I wouldn’t recommend walking alone at night.

A relaxed Big Boy strolls confidently across a road

AG: Based on anecdotal evidence, leopards seem to target and eat dogs – how do you keep your pet dogs safe?
VS: Leopards have attacked and eaten dogs on the estate. It happens infrequently though, because residents are constantly being made aware of the risks in estate correspondence. The rule is simple – keep your dogs inside the house when it’s dark, otherwise they might become leopard food. In fact, we don’t even like leaving our dogs alone outside during the twilight hours, because leopards are very active around sunrise and sunset.

Leopards can definitely jump over the small fences to get into gardens and wouldn’t hesitate to grab Fluffy where he’s taking a nap on the porch! Dogs are not allowed off the lead when they’re being walked in the estate and walking them at night is definitely looking for trouble…

AG: How often do residents report leopard sightings and are the leopards relaxed with humans in the vicinity?
VS: When we first moved to HWE in 2013, there was a massive male called Big Boy that was frequently seen by residents. My wife and I would jump in the car every time we heard monkey or impala alarm calls nearby our house, and more often than not, we’d find Big Boy. He would casually walk between houses and cars, and even drink from our bird bath!

Thanks to spot pattern analysis, a local guide identified him as a leopard that grew up in the nearby Thornybush Game Reserve, hence his relaxed demeanour around vehicles and people. Unfortunately, he disappeared in mid-2015, perhaps due to a territorial dispute with another leopard, Houdini, who took over as the dominant male in the area.

The rest of the leopards that frequent HWE are much shyer than Big Boy. They are hardly ever seen during the day, but if you’re lucky to catch a glimpse of one of them at night, they’re less likely to dash away into the thickets as they do when the sun is up. Sometimes months go by with no leopard sightings, but recently a female leopard, Kulua, and her two cubs were seen in the same area six days in a row. She must have had a kill in the vicinity.

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