ON THE WILD SIDE
It was late April among the growth of the Western Forest Complex, one of my favourite places in Thailand. The first rains had come and doused the dangerous forest fires that had spread throughout the area during the dry hot season between March and May.
The leopard resting by the hot spring just three weeks ago.
As usual, I'd set up camera traps at a hot spring not far from the ranger station some 50km deep in the interior, accessible only by a dirt road.
This natural seep is visited by all the large mammals including tigers, leopards, elephants, gaurs, bantengs, tapirs and sambars as well as many smaller creatures, and provides excellent opportunities for some great animal shots.
As I was going through a few of my camera traps changing out cards and batteries, I decided to have a quick look at a 2GB card that was in one of my cams.
Imagine my surprise to see a shot of a black leopard in the mid-afternoon walking up a trail. Other denizens caught in this series include elephants, tapirs, sambars, wild pigs and muntjacs (barking deers) over a month period back in February. The leopard was truly a bonus and I had actually closed out the programme with this cam.
This black leopard brought back fond memories of this place more than 15 years ago. I was sitting in a tree blind up by the hot springs when a black leopard walked into the open about 4pm and posed for me at several places over the next hour.
A black leopard camera trapped in February.
Those were in the old days of slide film, and I did not know how good the shots were until the film was processed. A few images are shown here from that lucky sequence many years ago. The sun was low and the black leopard showing its spots is one of my best wildlife photographs ever.
Sometimes things happen in succession that can boggle the mind. On May 6, I posted the black leopard camera trap image on my website.
The next day I left Bangkok very early in the morning and arrived at the hot springs. I was back to reset camera traps, and this time to sit at the base of the old tree for some through-the-lens work. Who knew what might show-up?
I was with my good friend Sarawut Sawkhamkhet, a Thai wildlife photographer. We arrived and set up a temporary blind around 3pm. The weather was warm and balmy with nice clear-blue skies.
At 5.45pm, the unthinkable happened! A black leopard appeared out of the forest near the springs and walked over for a drink, and then disappeared for a while. Then this magnificent creature came back and flopped down on all fours twitching its tail looking straight at us and staying for about 10 minutes before going back into the forest where it had come from.
The leopard (Panthera pardus) described by Linnaeus in 1758 is the second largest cat in Thailand. Once upon a time, leopards could be found in most forests of the Kingdom. These felines are surviving quite well in protected areas in the West, and many forests in the South. There have been no reports of leopards for a long time now from the Central, East and Northeast.
Pound for pound, the leopard can take on large animals several times its size. The leopard is closely related to the jaguar of South America. Both have a spotted coat and high incidence of "melanism", or black phase. Many people have a misconception that the black leopard (also known as the black panther) is a separate species but, in fact, it is the same as the yellow leopard.
This big cat was photographed 15 years ago.
The present distribution of the leopard is restricted to Asia Minor, India, Southeast Asia, the Himalayas, Tibet, China, Siberia and Africa. Fossils of leopards have been found in Pleistocene deposits throughout Europe, the Middle East, Java and Africa, some 1.5 million years old, indicating the leopard arrived after the tiger which has been around for about two million years.
These secretive cats are mainly nocturnal, but in some localities they are active in the day too. Their populations and ranges are difficult to determine but radio tracking of collared animals has shed new light on their movements and areas they live in.
Sighting a leopard in Asia is extremely difficult, and even catching a rare glimpse of this top predator is tough due to its solitary and stealthy behaviour. However, luck can sometimes play an important part in viewing the leopard and I feel lucky to have seen and photographed them on quite a few occasions.
My most thrilling adventure with a black leopard happened in Huai Kha Khaeng about five years ago while I was sitting on a bluff overlooking the river. A photographic blind was erected on the rock-face about 20m up with a small trail that enabled me to get into the hide. The sun was bright and the weather was warm during the dry season. About 9am, several monks down by the river passed on but did not see the camouflaged structure as they went their way. After that, I came down for lunch and set some camera traps at a mineral deposit nearby. At 2pm, I settled back in the blind and began a vigil of the river. I started to feel a bit groggy as the sun was beating down on my position. I moved my camera in to save it from the direct sunlight.
All of a sudden, I was startled by a growl outside the enclosure. I stood up peering out the window and came face to face with a huge round black head and yellow eyes about 2m away that penetrated my soul. My first instinct? It was a big black dog. But that quickly changed as the creature stared intently at me before bounding down the trail it had come up. The big cat was gone in a split second. Of course there was not enough time to get any photographs. The incident is indelibly etched in my memory.
Without doubt, the future of the leopard depends on one thing only _ the complete protection of the remaining forests where they live. If the national parks and wildlife sanctuaries remain intact with a high number of prey species, the big cats will survive. But if overdevelopment, poaching and encroachment are allowed to continue, the large cats will eventually disappear.
Unfortunately, too much time and money is wasted by too many organisations talking about saving wildlife and their habitats, with very little actually being done. Human population growth will eventually destroy most wild places.
Only true protection by some dedicated people will slow the destruction of precious wildlife and wilderness areas. It is hoped the leopard, and the tiger, will continue to survive as they have for millions of years.
Showing its spots in the afternoon sun.
The hot springs in the Western Forest Complex.
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About the author
- Writer: L. Bruce Kekule