Have you travelled the length and breadth of India looking for the elusive Leopard? Has the spotted cat evaded you and your eager camera at every turn? If yes, we believe we have the destination for your next wildlife trip. Read on, to hear from the experts why Kabini leopards have a reputation make it the best place to photograph leopards.
The ghost of the forests is often hailed as its most elegant dweller, its gleaming rosettes catching the rays of the sun as it prowls through the undergrowth or stalks up a tree. Shy, bashful and elusive, even the best photographers have spent numerous hours in the search of a leopard, and have often returned dejected. The very lifestyle of a leopard has it living on the run from the larger predators in the area, like the lions and hyenas of Africa, and the Tigers and Wild Dogs of India, making it one cagey customer.
Leopard photography around the world
African Leopards are also a sight for sore eyes, and there are some forests on the savannah known for the plentiful sightings of the cat, like the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya, the MalaMala Game Reserve in South Africa, or the Seronera Valley in Tanzania. Here, Leopards are often sighted strutting through the savannah, or high up in the occasional tree, where they stash their kills away from the hungry mouths of opportunistic scavengers like hyenas.
Moving over to the continent of Asia, a conversation about leopards is incomplete without a mention of the world-famous Yala National Park in Sri Lanka, widely regarded as one of the finest havens for leopards in the world. Leopards thrive in Yala because they sit at the top of the food chain as the apex predator, with no wild dogs, lions or tigers to force them into the treetops or steal their kills.
Leopard Photography in India
In the Indian subcontinent, leopards have historically been extremely rare. In fact, Jayanth Sharma, the CEO of Toehold, and a renowned wildlife photographer with over 2 decades of experience photographing wildlife recalls days in 2008, where there were barely images of leopards being circulated for magazines to access, and while on a trip with the image editor of the famous Sanctuary Asia magazine in BR Hills, an opportunity presented itself, in the form of a leopard on a tree. The image made the cover of Sanctuary Cub the following month, and Jayanth claims that the image was only an average one, but it was the dearth of leopard sightings that shot that image to instant stardom.
Sites of leopard sightings have traditionally frequented the news headlines, with a village named Bera in Rajasthan, a short distance from the city of Udaipur, making waves for its flaunted frequent sightings of leopards on the abundant rocky outcrops. Bera unfortunately also was prominently known for its controversial leopard baiting practices, which apparently has ceased to exist now.
As for some other prominent national parks in the country, like the Bandhavgarh National Park or the Ranthambore National Park, the forests have been ruled by the majestic Bengal Tiger for years, and their dominance over the jungles have forced the leopards to retreat deeper and deeper into depths of the national park, growing more and more elusive by the day.
Leopards of Kabini
That brings us to the jewel of South India, to the Nagarhole forest, of which Kabini is a part. It may surprise you, however, to know that Kabini was not always the world-renowned Leopard haven it is today. In fact, up until the years of 2010-11, leopard sightings were occasions for great joy and exultation. Jayanth often speaks about his trip to Kabini in 2006, where over the course of one week, he was graced by one solitary leopard sighting, where it scampered off the road nearly 300 metres away.
There was no photo opportunity, and barely enough time to even point the camera at the beast and begin to fire off images. These days, we would never even consider a sighting like that to be worthwhile, but a decade and a half ago, those were considered prime sightings. Leopards sitting on trees for hours together watching tourists, as thousands of images were made, was something that was unheard of.
Kabini Leopards – What’s special?
Following the year 2010, the sightings of leopards saw a rapid upward spiral, and Kabini veterans suspect that it is due to the forest’s resident leopards being accustomed to the daily rumblings of the jeep through the forest. There were a few resident leopards, whose territories were well recognised by Kabini veterans and the naturalists alike.
They were sighted a few times a week and due to the increased tiger activity in the forest, these leopards were often sighted atop a tree, concealed in the foliage. Unlike the Tigers of Kabini, the leopards grew accustomed to the vehicular activity and were sighted more frequently than their larger cousins. To read more about the tigers of Kabini, check out our blog!
For nearly a decade, Kabini stood as the gold standard for leopard sightings throughout the country, known both for sightings and fantastic photo opportunities of leopards, both on trees and on the forest floor, bathed in golden light. Indian forests have always been the hot spot for tourists from all over the world, and the forests of Bandhavgarh and Ranthambore were frequented for tiger sightings, and down south, Kabini was the haven for the spotted ghosts. Leopards on trees have stood the test of time as Kabini’s main attraction, for the leopards in Bera and Yala are oftentimes seen on rocky outcrops, basking in the sun.
Kabini is a forest dotted with teak plantations and ficus trees, which provide ideal resting spots for the leopards, where they spend most of their time, and what started with just a few leopards growing comfortable with the vehicular activity, spawned a trend as mothers passed on those behavioural instincts to their cubs. The process has created a lineage of bold, dauntless leopards, most of whom are known throughout the country.
Black Panther Kabini – The star of the park
One cannot bring up the topic of the leopards of Kabini without a mention to the Dark Lord of Kabini that has gripped the hearts of thousands, if not tens of thousands of photographers all over the world over the past half-decade or so, mystifying everyone who is fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of the venerated beast. A once shy and timid leopard who grew into a muscular, dominant icon, the Black Panther goes by many names, fondly called the BP or Blackie by the Kabini regulars.
He also goes by the elegant and mystical name of ‘Saaya’, which means ‘shadow’. He was christened with the title during the production of a National Geographic documentary which has since taken wildlife lovers by storm, called ‘The Real Black Panther’. To read Jayanth’s gripping encounter with the phantom and to hear how the panther had Jayanth under a spell for months, read his account of his sighting here!
Kabini’s Black Panther didn’t rocket to fame because he was the first of his kind. Quite the contrary, in fact. Black panthers have been reported in other major forests in the country, like Dandeli, Mudumalai and Tadoba, and a reasonable number of them exist overseas too. But none of them is as confident, or as accustomed to safari vehicles as the one who rules Kabini. The reputation that Kabini garnered over the past decade for leopard sightings and photo opportunities, only skyrocketed with the arrival of the Black Panther.
Will the forest’s reputation hold strong even long after the elusive Black Panther is gone? Or will the looming increase in Tiger activity take the park by storm and force the treetop denizens into hiding? Only time will tell.
While we don’t know about the future, but at the moment, Kabini is surely one of the best habitats in the country to sight and photograph leopards in the wild. If you love seeing them in their elements, you should see them resting on tree branches, totally at ease. We think, Kabini probably is the top destination in India when it comes to Leopards and we will be happy to help if you have any questions.