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Leopards are among the most elusive and secretive animals in the world. They are masters of camouflage and stealth and can easily blend into their surroundings. They are also highly adaptable and can live in a variety of habitats from forests and mountains to deserts and urban areas. However their elusive nature also makes them difficult to study and protect. That’s why tracking leopards in the wild is an important and exciting activity for wildlife enthusiasts and conservationists.

Tracking leopards is not just a matter of finding their footprints on the ground. It is also a way of understanding their behavior ecology and status. By deciphering the clues left behind by leopards trackers can learn about their diet hunting strategies social interactions territorial boundaries and movements. Tracking leopards is also a thrilling adventure as it involves following their trails interpreting their signs and sometimes even encountering them face to face.

In this blog post we will explore the art and science of tracking leopards. We will learn about the anatomy of a leopard’s paw how to identify and measure their tracks how to recognize their gait patterns how to interpret their age and activity how to examine their track patterns for behavioral insights and how to use tracking tools and techniques.

We will also share some real-life stories from experienced trackers discuss the conservation significance of tracking leopards and address some ethical considerations in tracking. By the end of this post we hope you will appreciate the beauty and complexity of leopard tracks and be inspired to support leopard conservation efforts.

Understanding Leopard Tracks

The first step in tracking leopards is to understand their tracks. A track is the impression left by an animal’s foot on the ground. A leopard’s track consists of four toes and a heel pad which are covered with fur. The toes have retractable claws which are usually not visible in the tracks. The heel pad has three lobes at the back and two at the front forming a distinctive “M” shape.

There are some unique features that distinguish leopard tracks from other animals. For example leopard tracks are asymmetrical meaning that the left and right tracks are not mirror images of each other. The inner toes are slightly ahead of the outer toes and the heel pad is slightly offset to the inside. Leopard tracks are also more rounded and compact than other cats such as lions and tigers which have more elongated and oval-shaped tracks.

The size of leopard tracks can vary depending on the age and gender of the leopard. Generally male leopards have larger tracks than female leopards and adult leopards have larger tracks than juvenile leopards. The average size of a male leopard’s track is about 9 cm long and 8 cm wide while the average size of a female leopard’s track is about 8 cm long and 7 cm wide. However these measurements are not absolute and there may be some overlap between individuals and populations.

Another aspect of understanding leopard tracks is to decipher their gait patterns. A gait is the way an animal walks or moves. Leopards have different gaits depending on their speed terrain and purpose. Some of the common gaits of leopards are:

  • Walk: This is the most common and relaxed gait of leopards. It is a slow and steady movement where the leopard places one foot in front of the other leaving a straight line of tracks. The tracks are evenly spaced and close together and the hind foot usually steps on or near the front foot track creating an overlap or a register. The walking gait indicates that the leopard is not in a hurry and is exploring its surroundings.
  • Trot: This is a faster and more energetic gait than the walk. It is a diagonal movement where the leopard moves the opposite front and hind feet at the same time leaving a zigzag line of tracks. The tracks are farther apart and more offset than the walk and the hind foot usually steps ahead of the front foot track creating a gap or a stride. The trotting gait indicates that the leopard is moving with a purpose and is covering more ground.
  • Gallop: This is the fastest and most powerful gait of leopards. It is a four-beat movement where the leopard moves all four feet in succession leaving a cluster of tracks. The tracks are widely spaced and irregularly arranged and the hind feet usually land ahead of the front feet creating a leap or a bound. The galloping gait indicates that the leopard is chasing or escaping from something and is exerting maximum speed and force.

By recognizing the gait patterns of leopards trackers can gain insights into their movement and behavior. For example a walking gait may suggest that the leopard is patrolling its territory a trotting gait may suggest that the leopard is following a prey and a galloping gait may suggest that the leopard is attacking or fleeing from a threat.

Tools and Techniques for Tracking

The next step in tracking leopards is to use the appropriate tools and techniques. Tracking leopards requires some equipment and skills that can help trackers find identify and follow their tracks. Some of the essential tools and techniques for tracking leopards are:

  • Binoculars and spotting scopes: These are optical devices that can help trackers see the tracks and signs of leopards from a distance. They can also help trackers spot the leopards themselves especially when they are hiding in trees or bushes. Binoculars and spotting scopes can magnify the image and enhance the contrast making the tracks and signs more visible and clear.
  • Camera traps: These are cameras that are triggered by motion or heat sensors and can capture images or videos of leopards and their tracks. They can be placed in strategic locations such as along trails near water sources or at potential den sites and can document the presence and activity of leopards over time. Camera traps can provide valuable information on the identity number sex age and behavior of leopards as well as their interactions with other animals and humans.
  • Field techniques: These are practical skills that can help trackers identify and follow the tracks of leopards in different terrains. Some of the field techniques are:
    • Recognizing fresh tracks: This is the ability to distinguish between new and old tracks based on their appearance and condition. Fresh tracks are usually sharp and clear with well-defined edges and details. Old tracks are usually dull and blurred with eroded edges and details. Fresh tracks also have no signs of disturbance such as debris insects or moisture. Old tracks may have signs of disturbance such as leaves twigs dust or water. Recognizing fresh tracks can help trackers determine the recency and direction of the leopard’s movement and increase the chances of finding or seeing the leopard.
    • Tips for tracking in different terrains: This is the ability to adapt to the challenges and opportunities of tracking leopards in various habitats and conditions. Different terrains may have different levels of track visibility and durability depending on the type and texture of the substrate the amount and angle of light and the influence of weather and vegetation. For example soft and moist substrates such as sand mud or snow may produce clear and lasting tracks but may also be easily disturbed or covered by wind rain or snow. Hard and dry substrates such as rock gravel or asphalt may produce faint and fleeting tracks but may also be less affected by weather or vegetation. Trackers need to be aware of the advantages and disadvantages of each terrain and use their observation and deduction skills to find and follow the tracks of leopards.

Reading the Story in the Dirt

The final step in tracking leopards is to read the story in the dirt. This is the ability to interpret the tracks and signs of leopards and infer their age and activity. By reading the story in the dirt trackers can learn more about the life and behavior of leopards and appreciate their intelligence and adaptability. Some of the aspects of reading the story in the dirt are:

  • Interpreting the age of tracks: This is the ability to estimate how long ago the tracks were made based on their appearance and condition as well as the impact of weather and other factors. The age of tracks can provide clues on the timing and frequency of the leopard’s movement and indicate the likelihood of finding or seeing the leopard. For example tracks that are fresh and undisturbed may suggest that the leopard is nearby and active while tracks that are old and disturbed may suggest that the leopard is far away and inactive. Interpreting the age of tracks can also help trackers avoid following false or misleading trails such as those made by other animals or humans or those that loop back or cross over.
  • Examining track patterns for behavioral insights: This is the ability to analyze the arrangement and distribution of tracks and deduce the actions and intentions of the leopards. Track patterns can reveal information on the hunting feeding resting mating and socializing behaviors of leopards as well as their communication and interaction with other animals and humans. For example track patterns that are straight and fast may indicate that the leopard is pursuing or escaping from something while track patterns that are curved and slow may indicate that the leopard is searching or exploring something. Track patterns that are clustered and scattered may indicate that the leopard is feeding or resting while track patterns that are paired and aligned may indicate that the leopard is mating or socializing.

Real-life Adventures in Leopard Tracking

Tracking leopards is not only a scientific endeavor but also a personal and emotional experience. Trackers often face various challenges and risks during their tracking expeditions such as harsh weather difficult terrain dangerous animals and human interference. However they also encounter moments of joy and wonder such as finding fresh tracks seeing leopards in their natural habitat and witnessing their unique behaviors and personalities. In this section we will share some real-life stories from experienced trackers who have dedicated their lives to following and studying leopards in the wild.

The Leopard that Outsmarted the Tracker

One of the most renowned leopard trackers in the world is Renias Mhlongo a Shangaan tracker from South Africa. He has been tracking leopards for over 40 years and has developed a deep connection and respect for these elusive cats. He has also trained and mentored many other trackers including Alex van den Heever a wildlife guide and author. Together they have co-founded the Tracker Academy a non-profit organization that teaches tracking skills to young people from rural communities.

One of their most memorable tracking experiences was when they encountered a male leopard named Tlangisa which means “the elusive one” in Shangaan. Tlangisa was a notorious leopard who was known for his cunning and intelligence. He was able to evade and outwit many trackers and researchers who tried to collar him for conservation purposes. Renias and Alex were among those who attempted to track and dart Tlangisa but they soon realized that it was not an easy task.

Tlangisa was a master of deception and diversion. He would use various tricks to confuse and mislead his pursuers such as walking backwards crossing rivers climbing trees and hiding in thickets. He would also take advantage of the terrain and the weather such as using rocky outcrops dry riverbeds and windy conditions to conceal his tracks and scent. He would also change his direction and speed frequently making it hard to predict his movements and intentions.

Renias and Alex spent many days and nights following Tlangisa’s tracks but they always ended up losing his trail or finding his tracks too old to follow. They also faced many dangers and difficulties along the way such as encountering lions hyenas elephants and buffaloes as well as dealing with extreme heat cold and rain. They also had to deal with the frustration and disappointment of not being able to catch up with Tlangisa who seemed to always be one step ahead of them.

However they also had moments of awe and admiration such as seeing Tlangisa’s tracks and signs and learning about his habits and personality. They discovered that Tlangisa was a large and powerful leopard who had a wide and well-marked territory. He was also a successful hunter who preyed on a variety of animals from impalas and warthogs to baboons and porcupines. He was also a clever and cautious leopard who avoided human contact and conflict and preferred to stay in remote and inaccessible areas.

Renias and Alex eventually managed to see Tlangisa in person after tracking him for several hours. They spotted him resting on a rocky ledge overlooking a valley. They were amazed by his beauty and presence and felt a sense of respect and gratitude for being able to witness him in his natural environment. They also felt a sense of relief and accomplishment for being able to track and find one of the most elusive leopards in the world.

However they also realized that they had no chance of darting him as he was too far away and too alert. They decided to leave him alone and let him continue his secretive and mysterious life. They also decided to stop trying to collar him and instead to observe and study him from a distance using camera traps and other non-invasive methods. They realized that Tlangisa was a leopard that deserved to be free and wild and that tracking him was not a matter of capturing him but of understanding and appreciating him.

The Leopard that Saved the Tracker

Another remarkable leopard tracker is Johnathan Scott a wildlife photographer and author from England. He has been living and working in Kenya for over 40 years and has documented the lives and stories of many leopards in the Masai Mara National Reserve. He has also hosted and produced several wildlife television series such as Big Cat Diary and Big Cat Live.

One of his most unforgettable tracking experiences was when he was saved by a female leopard named Half-Tail who was one of the stars of his shows. Half-Tail was a beautiful and brave leopard who had lost part of her tail in a fight with a lion. She was also a devoted mother who had raised several cubs in the harsh and competitive environment of the Mara.

Johnathan had a special bond with Half-Tail who had allowed him to follow and film her for many years. He had witnessed her triumphs and tragedies her joys and sorrows and her struggles and successes. He had also learned to respect and admire her as she had shown him her intelligence and resilience as well as her affection and trust.

One day Johnathan was tracking Half-Tail with his crew when they came across a group of hyenas who were scavenging on a carcass. Hyenas are one of the main threats and rivals of leopards as they can steal their kills injure or kill their cubs and even attack them. Johnathan decided to approach the hyenas hoping to get some close-up shots of them. However he made a fatal mistake: he left his vehicle and walked towards the hyenas on foot.

This was a very dangerous and foolish thing to do as hyenas are very aggressive and unpredictable animals especially when they are feeding. They can easily outrun and overpower a human and inflict severe injuries or death with their powerful jaws and teeth. Johnathan soon realized his error as the hyenas noticed him and started to charge at him. He tried to run back to his vehicle but it was too late. The hyenas were faster and closer and he had no chance of escaping.

However just as he was about to be mauled by the hyenas something unexpected and miraculous happened. Half-Tail who had been watching the scene from a nearby tree suddenly leaped down and ran towards the hyenas snarling and growling. She then attacked the hyenas biting and scratching them and distracting them from Johnathan. She also gave Johnathan enough time and space to reach his vehicle and get inside where he was safe and sound.

Half-Tail had risked her own life to save Johnathan’s life in an act of courage and loyalty. She had recognized Johnathan as a friend and ally and had intervened to help him in his time of need. She had also shown him her gratitude and generosity as he had helped her in the past by providing her with food and protection and by raising awareness and support for her conservation.

Johnathan was shocked and moved by Half-Tail’s action and felt a surge of emotion and admiration for her. He also felt a sense of guilt and regret for putting himself and her in danger and for violating the rules and ethics of wildlife observation. He apologized to Half-Tail and thanked her for saving his life. He also vowed to never repeat his mistake and to always respect and appreciate her as well as all the other leopards and animals in the Mara.

Conservation Significance

Tracking leopards is not only a hobby or a passion but also a contribution to leopard conservation. Leopards are facing many threats and challenges in the wild such as habitat loss and fragmentation human-wildlife conflict poaching and illegal trade and disease and inbreeding. These factors have caused a decline in their population and distribution and have placed them in the vulnerable category of the IUCN Red List.

Tracking leopards can help monitor their population dynamics such as their number density sex ratio age structure and genetic diversity. This can provide valuable data and information for assessing their status and trends and for identifying their conservation needs and priorities. Tracking leopards can also help identify their key habitats such as their home ranges core areas corridors and hotspots. This can provide useful insights for planning and implementing conservation actions such as creating and managing protected areas restoring and connecting habitats and reducing and mitigating human impacts.

By tracking leopards trackers can also raise awareness and support for leopard conservation among the public the media and the policymakers. They can share their stories and findings and showcase the beauty and importance of leopards and their ecosystems. They can also educate and inspire people to appreciate and respect leopards and to take action to protect and conserve them. Tracking leopards can also create opportunities for collaboration and cooperation among different stakeholders such as researchers managers guides tourists communities and governments. They can work together to find solutions and strategies for ensuring the survival and well-being of leopards and their habitats.

Ethical Considerations in Tracking

Tracking leopards is not only a privilege but also a responsibility. Trackers need to be aware of the ethical implications and consequences of their actions and to balance the thrill of tracking with the welfare of leopards and their habitats. Trackers need to follow some rules and principles such as:

  • Respect the leopards and their environment: Trackers should not disturb harass or harm the leopards or their prey or interfere with their natural behavior and ecology. Trackers should also not damage or litter their habitats or introduce any invasive or harmful substances or organisms.
  • Minimize the impact and risk of tracking: Trackers should use the least invasive and most appropriate methods and tools for tracking leopards and avoid any unnecessary or excessive contact or interaction with them. Trackers should also take precautions and measures to protect themselves and others from potential dangers or conflicts such as carrying first aid kits radios and pepper spray and informing authorities and locals of their plans and whereabouts.
  • Follow the laws and regulations of tracking: Trackers should comply with the legal and administrative requirements and procedures of tracking leopards such as obtaining permits licenses and permissions and reporting their findings and activities. Trackers should also respect the rights and interests of the landowners managers and communities and seek their consent and cooperation for tracking leopards on their property or territory.
  • Contribute to the knowledge and conservation of leopards: Trackers should share their data and information with relevant stakeholders such as researchers managers and conservationists and support their efforts and initiatives for studying and protecting leopards and their habitats. Trackers should also educate and inspire others to appreciate and respect leopards and to take action to conserve them.


Tracking leopards is a fascinating and rewarding activity that can enrich our understanding and appreciation of these magnificent animals. By following their tracks and signs we can learn about their anatomy behavior and ecology and discover their secrets and stories. By tracking leopards we can also contribute to their conservation by monitoring their population and distribution identifying their key habitats and raising awareness and support for their protection.

However tracking leopards is also a challenging and risky activity that requires skill patience and caution. We need to use the appropriate tools and techniques and follow the ethical rules and principles to ensure the safety and well-being of ourselves the leopards and their habitats. We also need to respect and admire the leopards and not treat them as objects or trophies but as living and sentient beings.

We hope that this blog post has given you an insight and an inspiration into the art and science of tracking leopards. We encourage you to explore and experience the beauty and complexity of leopard tracks and to support leopard conservation efforts. Remember every track tells a story and every story matters.

Additional Resources

If you want to learn more about leopards and tracking here are some recommended books and documentaries that you can check out:

  • The Leopard’s Tale: Revealing the Mysteries of Africa’s Most Secretive Big Cat by Jonathan Scott and Angela Scott. This is a captivating and comprehensive book that chronicles the lives and stories of the leopards of the Masai Mara including Half-Tail and her family. It also provides useful information and tips on tracking leopards and stunning photographs of leopards and their habitats.
  • Leopard: A Life of Adventure by Renias Mhlongo and Alex van den Heever. This is an engaging and enlightening book that narrates the adventures and experiences of Renias Mhlongo one of the world’s best leopard trackers. It also reveals the secrets and skills of tracking leopards and the challenges and rewards of leopard conservation.
  • Eye of the Leopard by Dereck and Beverly Joubert. This is a beautiful and touching documentary that follows the journey of a female leopard named Legadema from her birth to adulthood in the Okavango Delta of Botswana. It also showcases the amazing and diverse wildlife and scenery of the delta and the threats and opportunities for leopard conservation.
  • Leopard: 21st Century Cat by BBC. This is a fascinating and informative documentary that explores the biology behavior and ecology of leopards and how they have adapted to various habitats and conditions from forests and mountains to deserts and cities. It also examines the human-leopard relationship and the challenges and solutions for leopard conservation.

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