A leopard approached our safari vehicle in South Africa's Mala Mala Game Reserve allowing close-up views and point-blank photographs of its intense and intimidating countenance.

Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM at 560 mm, 1/100 sec at f/5.6, ISO 800

On a trip to Southern Africa this September Alison and I were joined by our friends Greg and Meredith. Despite having been on previous safaris in Tanzania and South Africa, Greg and Meredith had never been fortunate enough to see a leopard in the wild. In an attempt to rectify that situation we designed this year’s trip to feature Mala Mala Private Game Reserve as our first camp. As part of the South Africa’s Greater Kruger region, Mala Mala shares an unfenced border with Kruger National Park and is famous for its leopard sightings.

Of course, sightings of an animal so elusive as the leopard are never guaranteed, even when visiting a locale known as “leopard central.” As we climbed into the vehicle for our very first game drive at Mala Mala, we crossed our fingers and hoped that we’d be rewarded on our leopard quest. We would not need to wait long because as we rolled out of camp, Brett, our assigned Ranger, told us that a large male leopard named West Street had been seen feeding on a rhino carcass nearby and asked if we’d be interested in trying to find him ourselves. The four of us responded “Yes, absolutely!” in unison and within minutes we were at the rhino carcass searching the grasses for West Street.

It wasn’t long before we found him, lying down nearby looking ornery. Brett told us that West Street was probably grouchy from gorging himself on the rhino carcass and then trying to digest his huge meal in the heat, all the while being swarmed by masses of pesky flies. We watched West Street repeatedly haul himself to his feet, lumber a few yards to a new spot, before plopping down again in a futile attempt to make himself more comfortable. At one point, he trudged towards us and lay down just a few yards from our vehicle. As if to emphasize just how grumpy he was feeling, he locked his gaze on Meredith and then twice audibly hissed at her. Having made his point that he was in no mood to be messed with, his demeanor changed and he did not seem troubled any longer by our presence. It was during that time that I was able to capture the image shown above in glorious closeup.

Knowing how full West Street had stuffed himself the last thing we thought we’d see is for him to revisit the carcass to continue feeding. Yet, after observing him for just forty minutes that is precisely what we witnessed. It was a vivid illustration of the fact that leopards — who are always at risk of losing their kills to other, stronger predators such as lions or hyenas — must consume absurdly large volumes of meat quickly and whenever an opportunity presents itself.

In case you were wondering, the leopard did not hunt and kill the rhino. Sadly, the rhino was euthanized by wildlife authorities after it was found with a broken rear femur bone, unable to stand. The rangers believed that it was injured after being rammed by another more dominant rhino. An injury of this type presents no opportunity for rehabilitation, so it was decided to end the rhino’s suffering and remove its horns to keep them out of the hands of poachers.

To see more pictures of this rather unusual encounter, click the following link to access the gallery. WARNING gallery depicts blood and is QUITE GRAPHIC. Leopard feeding on rhino carcass.

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