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I have just finished another shortened work stint in the Lowveld, and I realised two things:  firstly, winter is almost over and I am still wearing my short shorts (okay, it’s only a third of the way through, but I am trying to be positive here!) and secondly, I really do love leopards.

Leopard Timbavati South Africa
Picture perfect pose from a young Vyeboom Dam male © Chad Cocking

And before you ask, although I have been in the bush for quite a while, I don’t love them in that sort of way…and even if I did, it would never work – we just don’t share enough in common with one another, conversations would be a bit dull, I prefer my meat a bit more well-done and besides, I’m absolutely rubbish at climbing trees.

I do however have a confession to make, and I am pretty certain that not all that many leopards read my blogs, so I feel comfortable enough admitting it here, but I used to hate leopards.  I know hate is a strong word, but honestly, when I first started in the Timbavati and would join other guides on game drive, I would get visibly annoyed if they responded to leopard sightings instead of lion sightings.  Yeah, leopards were beautiful and sleek and all that jazz, but they just weren’t lions.

Lions, as lack-lustre as they may be at times, are still lions, and Africa is just not Africa without them; even today, I would rather have a guest leaving without seeing a leopard than depart not having seen a lion – there is just something awe-inspiring about being in their presence that few animals come close to matching.  I used to give fellow photographers stick for being infatuated with leopards and ignoring the lions, and my portfolio quickly filled up with images of the King of Beasts.

Leopard Timbavati South Africa
The blue-eyed Thumbela female making sure she looks good for the camera © Chad Cocking

Then one unknown day, something in me changed. Perhaps it was just a normal sequence of events like one undertakes as a child when you go from ordering cheeseburgers with no garnish to suddenly loving all the extra toppings, I don’t know?  I’m not sure of the moment, the day or the event that changed me, but I suddenly started taking photographs of leopards…and most frighteningly, I actually enjoyed it (its fine, lions don’t read these blogs either, so I am safe from them too).

The rest, as they say, is history!  Over the coming years, barring one lion photo which saw “my name getting out there”, I guess I am best “known” for my leopard photos (excuse the inverted commas, but I do find talking about myself as if others actually know me quite humorous!).

History doesn’t just happen though, and I guess if I look back over the last few years, I think the main shift in focus of my favourite photographic subject came with maturity. And no, I am not talking about my maturity here!  Rather, when I arrived, our resident lion pride had six little cubs, and lion cubs are just some of the most amazingly photogenic subjects you could ever ask for with all that pent up energy just waiting to come out.  Sadly though, cubs don’t stay cubs for very long, and by the time they got to about a year old, they were turning into typical “teenagers” and wanted to do nothing but sleep. They were no longer cute enough to elicit “aaaaaahs” from the guests, nor were they big enough to cause “ooooohs” of amazement from these same spectators.  They were just somewhere in between, sort of like a cheeseburger with only lettuce for garnish.

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It was also at about this time that one of the resident leopards in the area gave birth to a litter of two cubs that became the first ever leopard cubs I had the privilege to view.  Despite watching them grow up month after month, I didn’t hold out much hope that either of the cubs would survive: in the mother leopard’s eleven years of trying, she had not raised one cub successfully, and this was reinforced when lions killed the male cub at just 6 months of age.

Thankfully though, luck was on her side this time, and over the ensuing year, I got to enjoy watching her lone daughter grow from a curious and endearing cub into a fine young lady aptly named Kuhanya (meaning “survivor” in Shangaan).  So, I hear you ask, did you not get bored of Kuhanya now that she was no longer a cute little cub?  And the truth is, not at all, if anything, I grew more attached to her as she matured (even though she tried to kill me once or twice)!  This was when I truly began to appreciate what fantastic creautures leopards were to view in an environment like the Timbavati.

Leopard Timbavati South Africa
Nkateko female leopard drinking in a seasonal puddle of water © Chad Cocking

Over the last decade or two, much like other private reserves in the Lowveld, leopards have quickly become habituated to the presence of people in the Timbavati, and while we still have a good number of leopards that want nothing to do with us and just run off when they see a vehicle, the majority seemingly go about their lives as if we are not even there – Kuhanya grew up around the vehicles, and we became a part of her own world where she doesn’t know life without the odd vehicle around her.  Basically, she has no reason to fear us.

The point of this is, that without the need to fear the presence of people, leopards in the area become surprisingly diurnal in their behaviour as their need to be shy and secretive in the darkness of night has diminished. No in any case, with lions and hyenas far more nocturnal in their habits, this leaves the daylight hours open for leopards to hunt in peace without these pesky scavengers following them all over the show!  What this means is that when the lions settle down for the day shortly after sunrise, leopards are far from ready to rest, and as a result, most leopards are active quite late into the morning providing countless viewing and photographic opportunities.

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I will be the first to admit that taking photos of leopards is not difficult – and pretty much every photo that can be taken of a leopard has been taken by someone, somewhere in Africa.  Even if you are not after a unique shot of a leopard, it is still very difficult to take a “bad” leopard photo, as seemingly everybody “oooohs and aaaahs” about leopard photos no matter how good or bad the photos actually are!

Still, this does not take away from what wonderfully serene and seductive creatures leopards can be, and I am honestly quite happy that every photo does get the “oooohs and aaaahs” it gets, because every leopard deserves to be admired the same way that photo-shopped models do; the difference being that leopards should never need to be photo shopped (well, I guess that’s a debate for another day),  and this is what I realised during my last three week working cycle!

I would hate to even hazard a guess as to just how many tens of thousands of leopard photos I have taken over the last few years, so to come away from my last trip to the bush with four of my favourite ever leopard photos is quite a treat – maybe I am always just naturally biased towards my latest photographs, but amidst an otherwise quite month photographically-speaking, I was really chuffed that some leopards played along and posed so beautifully for me, leaving me with little to do but point-and-shoot  and then grin as widely as a child opening presents on Christmas morning as the images downloaded onto my laptop.

leopard timbavati south africa
Shongile female deciding that it was safe to descend a tree after having been kept up there most of the afternoon by a lioness © Chad Cocking

The thing is, having all of these images sitting on my laptop doing nothing would be an injustice to the leopards that I now love so much, and it is for this reason that I have chosen to remain in bed this morning typing this blog post, just to be able to share their beauty with you all, so I do hope you enjoy them!

Speaking of which, it is almost lunchtime, so if you will excuse me, and I am sure there are a couple of garnished cheeseburgers with my name on out there that need to be go and be enjoyed!

Ndumu River Lodge
Chad Cocking

I am a part field guide, part photographer, part tiara-wearing South African based in the Timbavati Private Game Reserve adjoining the Kruger National Park. Over the past six years, I have really settled into life in the bush, and besides living out my childhood dream of being a game ranger, I have developed a passion for capturing the special moments of my daily life on camera. While I don’t think I will ever fully appreciate how fortunate I am to be out in the bush all the time, I do realise that I live the life many can only dream of. I take great pleasure in sharing my magical moments and stories with anyone who cares to listen, and have connected with people from all over the world through my photography. Please feel free to visit my daily blog or my photography page on facebook for updates from the bush.