Don Wilson is Curator Emeritus of Mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and was director of the Smithsonian’s Biodiversity Programs for 10 years. A distinguished mammalogist and an internationally recognized authority on bats, his work has taken him around the world conducting field work and research. He has led tours for Smithsonian Journeys to most of the world’s greatest natural history destinations from Antarctica to Africa. On this last trip, he guided a Smithsonian group on safari in Zimbabwe and Botswana. Read his field notes from the trip below:
Our African Safari had been an unmitigated success, with one significant blemish: All safaris carry an unstated goal of seeing the “Big Five”— lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino, and elephant. We had seen all but leopards after wonderful game drives at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and Chobe National Park in Botswana. Our last stop was in Lower Zambezi National Park in Zambia. With lots of activities to choose from, including game drives, canoe trips, walking safaris, and even fishing for tiger fish in the mighty Zambezi River, we nevertheless felt the pressure mounting to spot the elusive leopard.
On the afternoon of our last day, most folks opted for the game drive, and our two hard working driver-guides, Brian and Simeon, were determined to give it their best shot. We headed into the local game management area, passing through thorn-scrub woodland where they knew leopards were occasionally seen. Heading towards the Zambezi escarpment into the setting sun, our driver Simeon got a quick call from Brian in the other vehicle, explaining that they had just seen a leopard, but it was a fleeting glimpse, as it scurried into the brush before anyone could get a picture.
We joined the other vehicle for traditional ‘sundowners’ of drinks and snacks on a high plateau overlooking the entire river valley, and watched the sun dip over the mountain behind us. Needless to say, our vehicle felt very envious of the others, even if their leopard sighting had been all too brief. Simeon said we would leave 10 minutes ahead of the other vehicle and return to the area where they had seen it, in hopes of spotting it again. By the time we got there, it was getting dark, and I manned the portable spot light while Simeon drove and used his excellent eyesight to scan back and forth intently. I was dutifully shining the spotlight up into every tree, and back and forth across the road as everyone felt their hopes dimming with each passing kilometer. Then, as we headed down into a small ravine, I brought the light back across the road from right to left, and on the left hand side of the road in the bottom of the ravine, a big, beautiful male leopard stood stock-still watching us approach from no more than 30 feet away as we came around the corner.
We had warned everyone to be absolutely silent if we did find a leopard, as they are quite shy and will run immediately if they hear voices. However, the vehicle and the lights do not bother them, and this one allowed us to photograph it as it walked slowly by us and back up the road the way we had just passed. Simeon quickly and quietly called Brian on the radio, and by the time we turned around, the other vehicle was there, and the Leopard moved into the brush beside the road, but still in the range of the spotlight. After a series of photos from both vehicles, we high-fived all around and headed back towards the lodge.
Just another wonderful finale to a great safari, right? But wait, it gets better. About five minutes down the road, I was still manning the spotlight, hoping to see a small nocturnal genet or civet, when there was another leopard, walking right down the road in front of us! We followed it slowly, called Brian again, and the other vehicle joined us once more. We took turns following behind this one, another male, but a bit smaller than the first. After another round of photos, we finally did head into the lodge for one last terrific dinner and enough stories to fuel the long trip back to the States and beyond.
Learn more about Don’s upcoming safari trips here.