Leopards are usually the most coveted of the Big Five sightings, in part because their nocturnal stealthy habits make them among the most difficult big cats to see. But what a find, if you do see it. They are the quintessence of feline beauty – stealthy, strong and secretive.

Did you know?

Leopards make a 'wa-wah' sound instead of purring, and make abrupt purr sounds to call their cubs.

Of all the big cats, the sighting that will thrill you to your bones is that of a leopard.

There is no member of the Big Five that is more secretive, more implacably wild, powerful and beautiful.

Unlike lions that loll about in prides, leopards are solitary and nocturnal – another reason they are so seldom sighted. They are mostly silent, although you may sometimes hear them ‘roaring’ – a territorial call that sounds exactly like someone sawing wood.

They have a talent for stealth, silently stalking their prey, seldom pouncing until they are within 20 metres or closer.

Their strength-to-weight ratio is staggering. They can kill animals three times their weight, and drag an adult antelope up a tree to safeguard and eat later.

Of all the big cats, they climb trees the most, and can sometimes be seen during the day, dozing draped across a branch.

Their camouflage, however, makes spotting them a real challenge. Leopards are mostly a buff or golden colour, covered in black rosettes, with two stripes below the throat. They have small round ears and a white tip on their tails that they hold high to guide their following cubs.

Although they are infuriatingly elusive, it’s not because they are fussy about where they live and what they eat. They’re found in most places around South Africa, from mountains to savannahs to semi-deserts and even settled areas.

Diet-wise, there’s very little they’ll turn their spotted noses up at. They prefer antelope, but if nothing else, they’ll take beetles, rabbits, birds – almost anything with protein. They have been known to sneak up on – and attack – guard dogs.

But despite their wide habitat tolerance and unfussy feeding preferences, there are only a few places where you stand a fair chance at seeing them.

The Sabi Sand reserve, which is right next to the Kruger National Park, is home to many private and exclusive game lodges. Among them, Londolozi and MalaMala notably boast excellent sighting statistics for leopards – in part because these creatures have become so habituated to humans and vehicles. Also, at a private lodge, the vehicles are permitted to drive off-road, which you can't do in the Kruger.

Travel tips & Planning info

How to get here

You might be lucky and see a leopard as you drive yourself around a reserve like the Kruger National Park. But to increase your chances, head for 1 of the private game reserves like MalaMala and Londolozi. They stop just short of guaranteeing a leopard sighting.

Best time to visit

In winter (May to September) your chances of seeing a leopard in daytime are increased. As with all nocturnal animals, they’ll sometimes hunt past dawn when it’s cold.

Get around

This is one time where you may really need to take a guided game drive in a private game reserve or a national park, in part because normal vehicles are not allowed to drive around at night, which is when leopards are active. Also, a seasoned field guide is far more likely to spot a well-camouflaged leopard than most people.

What will it cost

Staying at a national park will cost between about R500 to R1000 a night per person, whereas a private game reserve could cost from R2 000 to R12 000 a night per person.

Length of stay

If you’re staying at a private game reserve, set aside two nights at the very least. If you’re staying in a national park and are driving yourself, stay as long as you can if you’re determined to see a leopard.

What to pack

A strong torch might be helpful at dusk and dawn, and don’t forget to look up likely trees.

Where to stay

A quest for a leopard sighting is an excellent excuse to stay in one of South Africa’s luxurious game reserves like Londolozi or MalaMala, both famous for their wildlife sightings. There are many other private lodges in the Sabi Sands, as well as places like Madiwe Game Reserve in the North West province and elsewhere.