Stalking Leopards

Kim Wolhuter spent his early years growing up in the Kruger National Park, where both his father and grandfather were rangers. In preparation of a career in conservation management he studied Grassland Science but started making films in 1988, working mainly on Hyenas, Jackals and Leopards. In his last documentary 'Stalking Leopards' he narrates the story of Tjololo, a male Leopard whom he filmed mostly at night time in the Mala Mala Game Reserve, South Africa.
In June 2002, National Geographic conducted an interview with Kim, of which an excerpt complemented by himself is presented here.

In 'Stalking Leopards' you have focused on one specific animal to tell the story. Why did you do that?

Previously, I focused on animal behavior in general, and I had never concentrated on one individual animal. Then I started following Tjololo, a big male Leopard in Mala Mala, and I spent 18 months filming him. Once you spend that amount of time with an animal you really understand it, how it operates, and what it's life is all about. Getting into Tjololo's life was amazing. Leopards are extremely solitary and secretive, and they are aggressive about being left alone.

It was a huge challenge to get into his world, and it was a real honor to be accepted by him. To get that shot of Tjololo that was featured on the cover of National Geographic magazine [in October 2001], I sat on the ground in front of him and held my position as he walked towards me. That's an illustration of how he came to accept me into his world. He was not in the least bit interested in me. He walked towards me from about 30 metres away until he was half that distance and then he stepped past me. In all that time he didn't even glance at me. This experience made me realize that I had gotten into the incredible position where I meant nothing to this Leopard. I might as well have been a rock or a tree. I was in this neutral realm to him. Neither predator nor prey. To be accepted like that by an incredibly aggressive and secretive animal meant that everything I documented would be totally natural behavior. He would do what he wanted to do, go where he wanted to go, and never see me.

In making your documentary, what have you contributed to knowledge about Leopards?

At one stage Leopards were thought to be endangered because they are so secretive that we don't see them often and we don't know that much about them. Now we have found they are not endangered but they are very good at keeping out of sight and well away from people. They are still a threatened species, of course, but that's because of human encroachment on their habitat. As they lose their habitat so they are being threatened. My documentary confirms that.

The film also shows behavior not seen before, especially the rivalry between Leopards and hyenas. There is constant competition between Leopards and hyenas. Hyenas snatch prey from Leopards and smaller Leopards cannot stand up to them. With Tjololo we saw not only a Leopard standing its ground but also feeding on the same carcass alongside a hyena. Another thing we saw Tjololo do, which had not been seen before, was how he would kill twice in quick succession. He would leave the first one for the hyenas so that he could kill again, this time for himself. This was how he had learned to be able to keep a kill for himself.

You say the Leopard did not see you, but was there no sign at all of some kind of bond between you and the animal?
Tjololo - the One who stands alone. Photo by courtesy of Kim Wolhuter

I don't think so - but then again on quite a few occasions we did experience something interesting. It would happen when we were resting with him.

He would be sleeping on the ground and we would be snoozing in our vehicles next to him and he would get up so quietly that we were not aware that he was moving away. Then, when he was about 50 metres or so away, he would start calling. I don't know if this calling is natural behavior or not. However, if I had not seen Tjololo for a while and then I came across him again he never showed any sign of recognition. If I got out of my vehicle he acted as if I wasn't there. But if someone with me also got out of the car he'd know it immediately and run off.


What makes you get out of a vehicle in close proximity to a large, aggressive, wild Leopard? Where did you get the courage to do it for the first time?

It took a long time to be able to get to that point. Slowly, as he got used to my presence, I would venture out of the car when he was some distance away. Over time, the distance between us could be a lot less. At one stage, I got so close to him that he pissed on me while he was marking his territory.

The Leopard urinated on you and you had no sudden urge to wet your pants yourself?

No. I have developed an understanding of Leopards over a long time. I was charged by a Leopard once, the female in the documentary. But I had seen how hyenas stand their ground in the face of a Leopard charge. They stand confidently but avoid eye contact. I've found that eye contact is a big issue and a sign of aggression in the animal world. You must try to avoid contact with a Leopard's eyes, not only because they think you're being aggressive but also because they might pick up the fear in your eyes. You need to watch Leopards out of the corner of your eye and be aware of the tiny signs of trouble. If I get out of my car I am keenly alert, looking for the first little indication that something is not right. This is not something you can put in a manual of how to walk up to Leopards. It's a feeling you get that's impossible to put into words.

How are the Leopards you filmed doing now? Do you ever look for them now that the documentary has been completed?

The female probably died as it hasn't been seen for about eight months. Tjololo is alive and well. He has his territory totally under control. Whenever I am in Mala Mala I still see him. And it is always nice to see him. Saw him two nights ago [beginning of February 2003] and he killed an impala, but had to race up a tree with it as a couple of hyaenas were hot on his heels. He's still such a dude!! It is always nice to see him. If I see his tracks I do go out of my way to look for him. He still shows no sign of recognizing me.