Man-Eating Leopards: Austin Stevens Adventures

Continuing this week is the wildlife adventure series with Austin Stevens. In this instalment, Austin heads to South Africa for a close encounter with the most elusive big cat on the continent – the leopard. The ultimate goal of his mission is to photograph a mother and cub together.

Austin’s latest escapade sees him return to South Africa on a mission to photograph leopards in the wild. Sightings of these big cats are very rare thanks to their secretive behaviour and perfect camouflage. More exceptional still are sightings of mother and cub – but that is exactly what Austin wants to snap.

The intrepid photographer starts his search in a dry riverbed, but can find no sign of any tracks. He then turns to local knowledge. Kopjes – small outcrops of volcanic rock – make great hiding places for leopards and their young. One particular kopje, Austin hears, is rumoured to be home to a leopard den.

Travelling across the savannah en route to the kopje, Austin spots an elephant herd out in the open and stops to take some shots – only to be charged by an angry bull. A little further on, his persistence is rewarded when he sees his first leopard. The cat quickly takes cover in the tall grass but Austin follows, eventually getting close enough to identify the animal as a male. It may not be the mother Austin was seeking, but it is a great encounter nonetheless.

Once at the kopje, Austin decides to search on foot. Being away from the vehicle in leopard country is extremely dangerous, with mother leopards particularly fierce when protecting their young. However, there are some hiding places that simply cannot be investigated from the safety of a Land Rover…

Austin finds plenty of signs of lions and hyenas on the kopje, but can see no leopards. What he does spot, however, is a whole herd of impala at a watering hole in the distance. Since impala make up much of a leopard’s diet, Austin decides to head to the water. Along the way, he makes an extraordinary discovery – a pack of African hunting dogs with five healthy pups. These wild dogs are amongst the most endangered carnivores in Africa and sightings like this are extremely rare – but this pack seems to be thriving.

Spurred by his good fortune, Austin spots his second leopard. It is only a glimpse but he now knows he is definitely in the right area for cats. Over the next few days, various sightings follow, but the encounters are too short to get any decent photographs. And the mother and cub have yet to reveal themselves.

To increase his chances of success, Austin decides to take a risk and explore a promising-looking ravine on foot. His gamble pays off when he finds prints of a mother and cub leading out onto the savannah. The lead peters out in the tall grass, but when Austin chases a rock python up a tree, he finds a fresh leopard kill lodged in the branches. Knowing the leopard will return to feed, Austin races off to retrieve his car and set up a stakeout.

After hours of waiting, the leopard finally returns. It is a female – and she has a cub with her. Austin gets the photographs he wanted, but cannot resist trying for one more shot. Manoeuvring his vehicle into position, he sits directly under the young leopard feeding in the tree. But with the adult female on one side and the cub on the other, Austin is in a very precarious position. Has he finally pushed his luck too far?

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