Spots and fangs

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Our planet is home to a variety of iconic predators but few can match the stealth and beauty of the leopard. Wildlife photographer Greg du Toit made it his mission to capture one of Africa’s shyest big cats on camera

The enigmatic leopard can be found in every conceivable habitat and altitude. But rather strangely, its numbers are decreasing worldwide. This cat has disappeared from 36 per cent of its original global range; and currently, the African leopard is classified as ‘Vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, just one step away from being ‘Endangered’.

When I started my Velvet and Stealth photography project in 2008, they were labelled ‘Near Threatened’, which is further evidence of their decline. If people don’t appreciate the beauty of an animal, they won’t conserve it. It is as simple as that. So my goal is to bring a fresh portfolio of the African leopard to a wider audience, increase general public awareness of the issue and foster a greater knowledge and appreciation of these iconic, little-known cats.

There is one thing you can be sure about a leopard: you do not see it; it allows itself to be seen. So how exactly do I photograph such an elusive predator? I do not use bait, radio collars, microchips or camera traps. Instead, I spend eight hours a day in the field, learning each animal’s personal territory. Leopard densities vary from one animal per 100sq km to 30 per 100sq km, depending on the type of habitat. In South Africa’s Greater Kruger National Park, where I carried out most of my work, some of the highest leopard densities in the world exist. While the individuals in this area enjoy living in one of the continent’s largest ecosystems, in reality, each one’s territory consists of just a few square kilometres. Armed with this knowledge, I repeatedly — 47 times to be exact — revisited the same small area over nine years. And by following tracks, I was able to locate leopard.

One of my chief goals has been to document these cats’ diurnal activities as well as their nightly forays. Photographing them by day is hard enough but it becomes more difficult in the dark, when you’re armed with nothing but a handheld lamp hooked up to the car’s battery.

I followed eight leopards throughout the project, and spent just two hours with each one under darkness to ensure their natural hunting habits were not jeopardised. Besides, the warm and weak spotlight does not affect the animals’ eyes, which are far superior to our own. I was a conservationist long before I was a photographer, and it is my love for leopard that drove this venture.

To date, I have spent more than a thousand hours tracking these magnificent yet declining creatures. It is easy to spot a lion or elephant but a leopard is seldom seen — and the old adage ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is of great concern. I ardently hope that this collection of photographs not only reveals their astounding beauty and mystery but also reminds people of the importance of protecting them.

Predator eyes
Greater Kruger National Park, South Africa
“A close-up view of a leopard’s eyes is invigorating. It’s almost as if one can see the rods and cones behind the jet-black pupils. My favourite part of the eye, though, is the network of capillaries running along the lower circumference. There aren’t many places where a photographer can get so close to a wild leopard and I count myself blessed to have had this privilege.”

To find out more about Greg du Toit and his photographic workshops, visit gregdutoit.com; and to read more of his thoughts on the challenges facing the African leopard today, click here

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