The best places in Africa to see leopard in the wild
A swift glimpse of black and golden spots, the flick of an ear or a tail through the long grass, or a green reflection of two peering eyes in the spotlight... leopard sightings are often quick and fleeting, a stroke of luck and perhaps a blurry picture to tell the tale. But there are places in Africa where you can spend the better part of your game drive with these elusive animals, be it watching them snooze on the branches of a beautiful ancient tree, a mother and her leopard cubs playing in a dry riverbed, following a leopard hunting through the African savannah, or better still hoisting a kill up a tree with the greatest of ease and elegance and, if you’re really lucky, leopards mating or males having a territorial dispute. Our guides at Wild Wonderful World have been lucky to have had these extraordinary experiences throughout Africa and share their insights here, so you too can add some of these special places to your own safari and experience the same incredible sightings for yourselves.
From world renowned private game reserves in South Africa to remote national parks in Zambia and even some secret insight on where you can find the rare black leopard in Kenya, the destinations listed here will give you an extremely high chance of quality leopard viewing in the wild. The leopard populations in the below destinations are not only superior in number and density of animals but importantly the individuals have become very well habituated to safari vehicles and people through decades of responsible guiding and monitoring, which means you are best place to observe leopard in its natural habitat. Looking for that iconic photo of a leopard lazying on the branches of a tree? Keep reading…
1. South Africa: Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve
Without doubt the best place in Africa to view leopards, the Sabi Sand Wildtuin is a private conservancy of exclusive and award-winning luxury game lodges adjoining South Africa’s famous Kruger National Park. Our entire Wild Wonderful World team has personally worked in Sabi Sand lodges, and it will always remain without a doubt one of our absolute favourite places to see and spend time with wild leopards!
A combination of factors makes the Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve a particularly productive leopard-mecca - where they sometimes quite literally hang from the trees. Wedged against the unfenced border with Kruger National Park, the Sabi Sands game reserves are bordered by the Sabi River on the southern side and crossed by the Sand River flowing from North to South. The presence of both waterways attracts all sorts of general and big game, which, combined with luscious riverine vegetation makes for excellent leopard habitat. Aside from leopard viewing, the reserve’s high numbers of general game and Big 5 offer an all-round exceptional safari experience, topped off with luxurious accommodation at some of the world’s most exclusive game lodges.
Sabi Sands leopards are known for being extremely relaxed with safari vehicles and human activity, which makes it a prime location for viewing leopards’ in their natural behaviour. You can experience the thrill of following leopards on the hunt off-road, in a private game viewer led by experienced guides and trackers who are intimately familiar with the territories and movements of the leopards and will provide a background (and even lineage) of the individuals seen. If you are lucky, you will be able to have sightings of leopard cubs playing with their mothers on top of the river boulders or in a tapestry of leaves in intimate drainage lines and river islands. Leopards have even been known to den on top of a lodge’s gym roof or casually stroll through the outdoor restaurant at lunch time! At Wild Wonderful World we often recount fond memories of one of Sabi Sands most iconic leopards, the Ndzilo Female - whose acrobatic antics and frequent visits to guests’ rooms around wake-up time made for unforgettable memories:
"We were on our way to the guest rooms for morning game drive wake-up calls, when suddenly we spotted (no pun intended) movement in our spotlights. Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be the Ndzilo Female Leopard, who seemingly had decided we needed help on our wake-up rounds and was making her way from room to room, peering through the windows to see if everyone was awake and out of bed. Luckily, she decided we could probably handle the job on our own, disappearing ever so elegantly into the darkness and everyone got to morning tea safe and on time!"
If leopard sightings are what you are after, a safari at one of the Londolozi lodges is an absolute must. Londolozi was one of the first game sanctuaries offering a top flight leopard viewing experience back in the 1980s. The famous ‘Leopards of Londolozi’ have been well documented for years, as attested by countless photographs, studies, and the interest of wildlife camera crews. Londolozi Founders Camp - situated along the banks of the Sand River - and Londolozi Tree Camp - an exclusive camp situated amid a Leadwood tree forest, are the ultimate luxury game lodges. Combining elegance and simplicity in accommodation, with extremely professional, passionate and knowledgeable rangers and trackers on game drive - Londolozi epitomises Sabi Sands luxury game viewing for a leopard focused safari.
With the highest frequency of Big 5 sightings compared to any other property, Mala Mala is another prime safari destination to see leopards in their natural habitat and spend long game drives out in the African bush veld. Mala Mala has set the safari industry's blueprint for the luxury photographic safari since 1927 and - in the opinion of most Wild Wonderful World guides - continues to offer the epitome of a classic safari experience. Several documentaries including ‘Stalking Leopards’ have been filmed at Mala Mala, cementing the reserve’s status as the best spot to view leopards in Africa. With approximately 42 different leopards to view at the time of writing - not including cubs younger than 12 months - Mala Mala is truly the ultimate destination for game viewing and wildlife photography enthusiasts in South Africa.
“Through the eyes of Spotted Cats” A philanthropic journey to support the conservation of Africa's more illusive predators; leopard and cheetah. Unrivalled game viewing paired with educational insights.
2. Zambia: South Luangwa
Zambia’s favourite safari destination, South Luangwa - also known as the “Valley of the Leopard” - is home to one of Africa’s highest densities of leopards. So dense in fact, that it is believed that there is one leopard for every two square kilometres!
The South Luangwa is situated in the east of Zambia, along the Luangwa Valley. It combines pristine riverine habitat with reliable water sources, creating the perfect balance for a remote wildlife hotspot - and prime leopard habitat to boot. In this national park, leopards are sighted daily, especially around the oxbow lagoons and riverine woodlands on the Luangwa River floodplains. Dotted with groves of giant ebony trees, luxuriant sausage trees and acacias, you are almost guaranteed to capture an iconic image of a leopard lazying about on a branch. Night game drives are a specialty here and the chances of exceptional leopard sightings at night are very high.
With a host of affordable camping and self-drive safari options available, as well as luxury camps, South Luangwa has something for everyone. To increase your chances of high-quality leopard sightings, we do recommend looking into a private safari. The best time to visit is during the late dry season (August to October), when the vegetation is a little less dense. Combine your nightly game drives with sleeping under the stars on an adventurous sleep out in the river bed at Chinzombo Lodge, and you might very well fall asleep to a leopard rasping in a neighbouring tree!
“The Marvels of Zambia” Experience a safari, rich with incredible wildlife, spectacular landscapes and draped in all the comforts of Zambia's top lodges.
3. Botswana: Abu & Moremi Game Reserves
Botswana’s varied landscapes and excellent leopard sightings are a testament to the leopard’s adaptability. Here, they are commonly seen both in the desert habitats of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, as well as in the wetlands of the Abu Private Reserve and Moremi National Parks. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Okavango Delta stretches over two million hectares of pristine floodplains, where meandering channels weave around thousands of palm-fringed islands, where the clear, lily-covered water is pure enough to drink. Visit the leopards of Botswana between the months of June and November to maximise your chances of great sightings.
In the south-west of the Delta, the scenically splendid Abu Private Reserve varies from seasonally inundated floodplains and channels, to palm islands in the north-east, and the dryer Kalahari ‘Sandveld Tongue’ in the west. Here, the accommodation offers something for everyone: from the luxury safari tents in Abu Camp to the rustic canvas tents at Seba Camp. Guides are highly skilled interpreters of tracks, calls and behaviour of the resident wildlife, providing for exceptional leopard and other predator sightings. The riverine vegetation in a forest of majestic hardwood trees plays host to extraordinary birdlife, while a variety of land and water game-viewing activities ensures a classic "combination" Okavango Delta safari experience.
Wild Wonderful World Founder Michelle recounts one of her recent sightings at Abu Camp:
“When we arrived, our guide filled us in on leopard dynamics in the area and said there were over 12 habituated leopards that had been seen regularly in the Abu/Seba/Jao concession. In our first 24hr at Abu, we saw three different individual leopards– one of the dominant males, fast asleep in the long grass near a termite mound on our way from the airstrip to the lodge, then later that evening an exquisite sighting of a young female leopard (one of two young female cubs recently separated from their mother) silhouetted against the gorgeous Okavango sunset. The next morning, we happened to find the young female’s mother, and followed her for some time as she prowled the sweeping grasslands and islands of the delta.”
On the eastern border of the Delta lies Moremi Game Reserve, the oldest protected section of this part of Botswana, and it really is the envy of the whole country for its substantial big cat sightings. Thanks to good year-round game, predators - including leopard - have a steady supply of pray which keeps them in the area. Located in this renowned Game Reserve in the north-eastern corner of Chief’s Island – once a tribal leader’s hunting ground – Mombo Camp is a beacon of ecotourism, leaving a light footprint in this little slice of paradise. Often dubbed “the place of plenty”, it has become renowned for its incredible leopard sightings since the filming of ‘Eye of the Leopard’. In addition to leopard, there are good numbers of lion and cheetah, large herds of buffalo, spotted hyena and white rhino to name a few.
“The Absolute Best of Botswana & Zimbabwe” Unwind and restore in a remote paradise where the wildlife are plenty and the sunsets awe inspiring.
4. Kenya: Laikipia
Kenya’s wildlife reserves and national parks offer a broad range of habitats and leopard-watching areas. Leopards are present throughout the country, but sightings are most common in the Masai Mara National Reserve and the surrounding community-run conservancies, as well as Lake Nakuru and Tsavo West National Parks. But the newest and perhaps the most unique Kenyan destination for leopard sightings, is the region of Laikipia in Central Kenya.
The reason for Laikipia's recent arrival on the hotlist for leopard spotting in Africa is the incredible sightings of a rare melanistic form of leopard: a black leopard or “black panther”. Black leopard sightings are extremely rare - making this melanistic colouring (a recessive gene trait) one of the most sought-after. They are generally found in forest habitats and are most well-known in the tropical forests in Southeast Asia where their black fur gives them camouflage amid the thick, shaded vegetation.
Yet African Black Leopard have also been recorded in the Aberdare Mountains in Kenya’s highlands and now even in the more arid, rocky habitats of Laikipia. Wild Wonderful World NPC Director & private guide Jonty Bozas has had the chance of tracking and photographing the melanistic leopard in Laikipia Wilderness:
“A black leopard or black panther (the only reference I had, was Bagheera from Jungle Book) has an almost mythical status amongst guides in the safari industry. So naturally, I jumped at the opportunity to head to Laikipia in Kenya in search for the elusive black leopard that had been seen there! Now looking back after a successful trip, I still can’t actually believe what I saw and experienced. To spend time with a normal leopard in the wild is already an extraordinary experience, and so to join the small group of people who have actually seen a black leopard in the wild is truly special and very humbling indeed.”
The entire Laikipia plateau is a patchwork of privately or communally owned ranches, wildlife conservancies, or small-scale subsistence farms, all of which aim to protect the wildlife, promote a personalized and intimate luxury safari tourism industry, and empower the native communities of the Laikipia Maasai and Samburu people. Some beautiful camps within the Loisaba Conservancy are Lewa Wilderness and Elewana Loisaba Tented Camp. However, lodging options vary and change regularly as to which is the best place to see this illusive black cat - contact us for more info so we can give you an update on latest sightings.
"Spectacular Kenya” A Classic East African Safari experience that'll take you from the dramatic gamelands of the Masai Mara to the world famous Lewa Downs.
The safari of your dreams
Whether you are a die-hard leopard fan or not, the above destinations are absolutely top of the crop for Big 5 safari. Including even just one of them in your next African safari will make your trip a once-in-a-lifetime experience and leave you with lifelong memories to cherish. And who knows, you might just catch the leopard-bug that has caught most of our guides as well… We can plan the leopard safari of your dreams, contact us today to enquire about pricing and private guiding options!
Written by Michelle Campbell, Evelyn Poole & Jonty Bozas.