The leopard is one of the official Big 5 (along with the elephant, buffalo, lion and rhino). More than this, it is an exquisite wild cat, an accomplished hunter and mysterious for its elusiveness. It is the smallest of all the wild cats and certainly one of the most beautiful. However, because it is a naturally shy animal, avoiding contact with humans, it is sometimes difficult to find within its natural habitat.
In South Africa, leopards can be found in a number of reserves, parks and wildlife facilities. The Kruger National Park is a good option for travellers wanting to see leopards, as well as a number of other awesome wildlife species. Still, Kruger is an enormous park with plenty of hiding places for leopards.
So, visitors may search for hours, even days, to find one of these cats. This means that visitors need plenty of time here. Therefore, a smaller park, with less room or a higher concentration of animals per square kilometres, may yield better results.
For even more of a guarantee, consider visiting a rehabilitation facility (such as the Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre near the Drakensberg Mountains or the Leopard and Predator Project, which has a number of projects around South Africa).
If you are visiting a park in which you know that there are leopards, inform your guide in advance that you would specifically like to see this cat. They may be able to track them for you or find them based on previous sightings the same day.
The best time of year to visit South Africa with the aim of seeing leopards is between May and September, which is largely during the winter months. In summer, leopards are more likely to hide in the shady boughs of trees or in similar areas of seclusion, trying to escape the heat of the day. In winter, though, they are more comfortable to amble around during the daytime.
Leopards are nocturnal hunters, so night drives are the best time to see them with the help of spotlights.
Guided tours are the best way to ensure that you see leopards, not only so that guides can direct you to places in which they often find leopards but also because you may require a skilled driver and a car adapted to negotiating roads at night, when leopards are more commonly seen.
When searching for leopards, remember to look up into the trees, and not only at ground level. They are expertly camouflaged by the South African bushveld, so keep your eyes peeled and your camera ready.