WILD SPECIES REPORT
An ambush predator – solitary, stealthy and naturally camouflaged
The late French poet Robert Desnos (1900-1945) wrote a short poem entitled “The Leopard”
“If you go into the woods, beware of the leopard.
He meows in subdued voice and arrives from nowhere”
Black leopard in the late afternoon sun
The leopard Panthera pardus described by Linnaeus in 1758 is the second largest cat in Thailand. Once upon a time, leopards could be found in all the forests of the Kingdom. These felines are still surviving quite well in protected areas in the West, and some in the South. The central, eastern and northeastern regions have no reports of leopard for some time now.
A few have been reported in Phu Khieo Wildlife Sanctuary in Chaiyaphum province, but for some reason they have disappeared from most remaining forests. The reason these areas have no leopards are quite simple; prey species has been hunted out including the leopard itself for its pelt and bones, and encroachment has destroyed much of its habitat.
Sighting a leopard in Asia is extremely difficult, and even catching a rare glimpse of this very essential top predator is tough due to its solitary and stealthy behavior. However, luck can sometimes play an important part in viewing the leopard and I feel lucky to have seen and photographed them on quite a few occasions.
Leopard camera trapped in Kaeng Krachan National Park
The most thrilling or heart stopping adventure with a black leopard happened in Huai Kha Khaeng about five years ago while I was sitting up on a bluff overlooking the river. A photographic blind was erected on the rock-face about 20 meters up with a small trail that enabled me to get into the hide. It was a neat location that I had dreamed of sitting here for many years prior. The sun was bright and the weather was warm during the dry season.
About 9am, several monks down by the river passed on but did not see the camouflaged structure as they went their way. After that, I came down for lunch and set some camera traps at a mineral deposit nearby. At 2pm, I settled back in the blind and began a vigil of the river. I started to feel a bit groggy as the sun was beating down on my position. I moved my camera in to save it from the direct sunlight.
All of a sudden, I was startled by a guttural growl outside the enclosure. I stood up slightly and peering out the window came face to face with a huge round black head and yellow eyes about two meters away that penetrated my soul. My first instinct reaction; it was a big black dog. But that quickly changed as the creature stared intently at me before bounding down the trail it had come up. The big cat was gone in a split second. Of course there was not enough time to get any photographs. The incident surely is etched in my memory.
Black leopard camera trapped in Kaeng Krachan
Why had the leopard come so close without smelling me? On that particular day, I was using an old hunters technique by collecting fresh wild water buffalo droppings and putting them in front of the blind, and that probably covered my scent. Maybe the leopard thought there was a newborn calf, or an old weaken animal. Or maybe it used this natural place overlooking the river to spot prey like sambar, barking deer or wild pigs that are abundant here and came up to investigate. The vantage point is on a bend in the river and one can see for quite a distance both ways.
I will never know how close I came to being attacked by a leopard but it was a heart stopper for sure. I sat motionless for quite sometime. Only a few sticks and camouflaged material separated me from a wild creature armed with fangs and claws. On that day, the spirits of the forest looked after me, or was it the ‘Spirit of the Forest’. I like to believe that was the case. I hope one day to go back and stake out this bluff, and believe this leopard is probably a resident around here. Previously, I camera trapped tiger and a yellow phase leopard not far from here.
A leopard resting on a wildlife trail
Speaking of leopard attacks, my close friend and associate Dr Lon Grassman was once seriously injured in Kaeng Krachan National Park, Phetchaburi province by a leopard while working there on a survey to camera trap and collar the big cat. When Lon released one, it looked up and turned on him in a split second mauling his legs and arms. It was a close call but he survived to carry on his work researching wild carnivores. Lon established the home range and other behavior patterns of leopards in the park.
He then moved to Phu Khieo Wildlife Sanctuary, Chaiyaphum province in the Northeast and continued this work catching and releasing quite a few golden cats, clouded leopards and a marbled cat. He eventually received his doctorate for his excellent work.
In the beginning of my profession as a wildlife photographer, I was very fortunate. The Director of the Wildlife Conservation Division of the National Parks Department (DNP) at the time, my dear friend Dr Viroj Pimmanrojnagool (now retired), had confidence in me and gave permission to enter the realm of the leopard and the tiger, something not easily acquired. Entry into wildlife sanctuaries has always been very restricted but is possible with the right qualifications. Viroj and I are still very close and I visit him from time to time at his durian farm in Surat Thani down south where he is happily enjoying retirement.
Leopard in the bamboo – my very first photo of the big cat
My first encounter with the sleek cat goes back to the beginning of my career more than a decade ago. Driving into the forest late one afternoon in Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary, a World Heritage Site, the sun was low but the light still quite good for photography. The protected area is situated in Uthai Thani province and is part of the Western Forest Complex.
I was about to capture my very first Asian leopard on film. This was in my early days as a wildlife photographer with a newly acquired Nikon N90s camera and 300mm lens. I was on a learning curve that would take me into some unique natural habitats and bump into some very unusual animals around Thailand.
Leopard posing in Kaeng Krachan
About 4pm some 10 kilometers from the headquarters as I was driving in, a leopard jumped in front of my truck and bounded up the steep embankment on my right. I gently came to a halt and there looking down at me was these two big yellow eyes that brought my attention to 100 percent. In the meantime, I had already grabbed my camera and started snapping through the window as fast as possible but quickly slowed the pace concentrating on focus. After a few more shots, the spotted cat melted into a bamboo thicket and was gone. The encounter was measured in mere seconds.
I sat in the vehicle for a few minutes to catch my breath as my heart was thumping. A close encounter with a carnivore capable of tearing us apart is something that can get the blood flowing. I finally got going again as my destination was still a couple of hours away deep in the forest.
Leopard on a sambar kill – my first camera-trap photo of the feline
Arriving at the Kabook Kabieng ranger station just at dusk, the head of the station Loong Waitanyakarn, another good friend, came immediately to the truck and said, “ a sambar mother and fawn have been killed by a leopard or wild dogs not far from the station and let’s go look”.
It didn’t take me long to ponder that an opportunity had presented itself. I had a new infrared sensor for my Nikon camera and decided to set-up the unit next to the dead sambar. A new role of film was loaded and the lens focused on the mother deer. The sensor was active infrared that uses a transmitter and receiver hooked to the camera. When an animal trips the beam, the shutter is activated taking a self-portrait. At the time, this technology was rather new but I needed it to supplement my regular photography.
Black leopard posing for me at a hot spring
The next day at noon some 10 kilometers away, Loong took me to a tree stand over-looking a hot spring. The box-like structure was quite high up and it was a bit scary getting situated in the blind but finally, I settled down with my Nikon 500mm lens and camera scheduled for a three-day stint. The mineral deposit and hot springs attracts many large mammals including elephant, gaur, banteng, tiger, leopard, wild dogs, tapir and many other animals that come for the life-giving minerals, or for prey.
Black leopard at the hotspring
About 3pm, a troop of leaf-monkeys visited the hot springs for a quick drink but did not stay long. They had been spooked by something as they all panicked and gave flight in the trees up the hill. A short time later, a black leopard appeared from the top end and walked over to where the monkeys had just been. The sun was low in the sky and I could see the leopard’s pattern of rosettes through the lens that jumped out at me.
My heart began racing as the stealthy cat stopped at the top to take a drink. It stayed for about an hour. I calmed down but continued shooting changing several rolls of film and watching this magnificent creature. Just before the sun was gone, it moved closer to the tree I was in and then walked across the stream. The cat plopped down on a log and stretched out posing for me, all the while looking up at my position. I kept shooting and then it came even closer before veering off probably spooked by my scent. As the leopard moved through the forest, monkeys, barking deer and sambar barked at the predator.
Leopard mother and cub camera trapped at a sambar kill – A rare photo
showing both color phases
I will never forget these encounters. Three leopards in two days are pretty good going for a new wildlife photographer and it was truly the beginning of many sightings and photographs of this amazing carnivore. I have seen loads of them on film while working in Kaeng Krachan. Both black and yellow phase were camera trapped in three separate locations in the interior at almost every location.
The Tenassarim Range in southwest Thailand is an absolute haven for the leopard due to a very good prey base here. Tigers also survive and have overlapping territories with the spotted cat. Both species hunt during the day and night. My old friend Suthad Sapphu, a forest ranger in Kaeng Krachan, was extremely helpful while we were camera trapping the big cats.
Leopard track in Kaeng Krachan
Without doubt, the future of the leopard depends on one thing only – the complete protection of the remaining forests where they live. If the national parks and wildlife sanctuaries remain intact with a high number of prey species, the big cats will survive. But if over-development, poaching and encroachment are allowed to continue, the large cats will eventually disappear.
Unfortunately, too much time and money is wasted by too many organizations talking about saving wildlife and their habitats, with very little actually being done. Human population growth will eventually destroy most wild places. Only true protection by some dedicated people will slow the destruction of nature’s precious wildlife and wilderness areas. It is hoped the leopard, and the tiger, will continue to survive as they have for millions of years.
Pound for pound, the leopard can take on some seriously large animals several times its size. The leopard is closely related to the jaguar of South America. Both have a spotted coat pattern, incidence of ‘melanism’ or black phase, and relatively short legs.
The present distribution of the leopard is restricted to Asia Minor, India, Southeast Asia, the Himalayas, Tibet, China, Siberia, and Africa. Fossils of leopards were found in Pleistocene deposits throughout Europe, the Middle East, Java, and Africa, some 1.5 million years old, indicating the leopard arrived after the tiger. These secretive cats are mainly nocturnal but in some localities, they are active in the day too. Their populations and ranges are difficult to determine but radio tracking of collared animals has shed new light on their movements and areas they live in.
Black leopard camera trapped in Kaeng Krachan
The leopard is a member of the Felidae family and is the smallest of the four “big cats” in the genus Panthera, or roaring cats. The other three are the tiger, lion and jaguar. The leopard’s range of distribution has decreased radically because of hunting and loss of habitat. It is now chiefly found in sub-Saharan Africa; there are also fragmented populations in Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Indochina, Malaysia, and China. Because of its declining range and population, it is listed as a “Near Threatened” species by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature).
The species’ success in the wild is in part due to its opportunistic hunting behavior, its adaptability to habitats, human settlements and activity, its ability to run at speeds approaching 58 kilometers per hour (36 mph), its unequaled ability to climb trees even when carrying a heavy carcass, and its notorious ability for stealth. The leopard consumes virtually any animal it can hunt down and catch. Its habitat ranges from rainforest to desert terrains.