As Leopard Program Director for global wild cat conservation organisation Panthera, Dr. Guy Balme has seen his fair share of camera-trap images. But this recent snap of a leopard’s daytime hunt in South Africa’s Londolozi Private Game Reserve is something special.

© Panthera/Londolozi

“This is without doubt the most spectacular leopard camera-trap photo that I’ve seen,” Dr Balme told us via email. “We’ve captured leopards carrying cubs, mating and stalking and chasing prey, but never a full-blown kill mid-frame during the day.”

The image, captured on 20 August, forms part of a monitoring effort conducted by Panthera in partnership with the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and other organisations to learn more about leopard population trends. “Londolozi, and the neighbouring properties in the Sabi Sand and Mala Mala Game Reserves, serve as very useful benchmarks for our monitoring, as it is one of the few places where leopards are regulated by natural factors,” Dr Balme explained.

Leopards are remarkably adaptable and have the largest range of all big cats, which often brings them into conflict with humans. In most areas, humans are responsible for the majority of leopard deaths; however, this is not the case in Sabi Sand and Mala Mala – private game reserves nestled against the western boundary of the Kruger National Park. Here, human-mediated mortality only accounts for two percent of leopard deaths. “As such, this survey acts as our experimental ‘control’, revealing the densities that leopards can reach if left undisturbed,” says Dr Balme.

The Ndzanzeni young male leopard. Image © Londolozi

Remotely activated cameras have become an integral tool for researchers hoping to learn more about population dynamics and behaviour. This leopard – a two-year-old known to Londolozi rangers as the Ndzanzeni young male – is still figuring out the art of hunting large prey. The camera-trap capture offers encouraging evidence that he is on his way to becoming an accomplished hunter. Later sightings of the Ndzanzeni male sporting a full belly suggest that this hunt was likely a successful one.

It’s a welcome development for Londolozi guide James Tyrell who had concerns that this young cat seemed “a little bit goofy” and lacked the instinct to fend for himself. Young leopards usually leave their mothers when they are around 18-24 months old. This transition to independence can be tricky as mom no longer turns up with a meal and the young cats are forced to fend for themselves. “Often these youngsters 'bite off more than they can chew', which can be disastrous,” Dr Balme told us. “As a solitary species, leopards cannot rely on anyone else to provide for them and many inexperienced youngsters die as a result of injuries incurred in overly ambitious hunts.”

The camera-trap project will run for the next three weeks at Londolozi, during which time Dr Balme hopes to gain vital intel on the leopard population in the area. "Without this critical information it is impossible to make informed decisions on how to best manage and protect leopards," he explains. "It is this knowledge gap that Panthera, Londolozi, SANBI and our other partners are hoping to address with our camera traps and strong science."

With a little luck, there will be more thrilling photos to follow. In the meantime, get your fill of camera-trap snaps, while also helping Panthera protect big cats, over at the Camera CATalogue.

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