"Leopards of the Night"

PBS Airdate: December 1, 1998
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NARRATOR: Tonight, on NOVA: As daylight fades, a silent hunter stalks. For the first time ever, under the cover of complete darkness, see her strike. With NOVA's special cameras, go on the hunt with Africa's most successful big cat. Enter the hidden world of leopards of the night.


Major funding for NOVA is provided by the Park Foundation, dedicated to education and quality television. And by I-Omega, makers of personal storage solutions for your computer, so you can create more, save more and do more of whatever it is you do. I-Omega, because it's your stuff.

This programs is funded, in part, by Northwestern Mutual Life, which has been protecting families and businesses for generations. Have you heard from the quiet company? Northwestern Mutual Life.

And by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and viewers like you.


[African speaker]

__: Gentle hunter. His tail plays on the ground, while he crushes the skull. Beautiful death, who puts on a spotted robe when he goes to his victim. Playful killer, whose loving embrace splits the antelopes heart.

NARRATOR: Many African cultures praise the courage and charisma of the leopard. They also fear his stealth and his cunning, because he can move and hunt in total darkness, whereas we, unable to see, can only hide away.

Now, using a very special camera, that can see in near-total darkness, we can venture out into the night to find the truth behind their stories and take a very special look at the leopard: the true agent of darkness.


NARRATOR: This is South Luangwa National Park, in Zambia, a lush riverine valley full of life. Leopards thrive here, but they are masters of concealment, and if you do catch a glimpse of an adult during the day, it's generally not doing very much at all.

Adults are generally solitary, much more secretive than lions or cheetah, and rarely hunt during the day.

Because of their stealth, leopards—not surprisingly—are the least known of all Africa's big cats. Much of their behavior has been hidden from us by the veil of darkness.

But now, using the state-of-the-art night vision equipment, we will be able to witness the behavior of a female and her cub as well as this mature male, as shadows lengthen and the sun begins to set.

We enter the real world of the leopard as the male leaves his refuge to begin his night patrol. Among these leopards of Zambia we will see activity rarely, if ever, observed before.

We will also travel southwards, to Namibia, as part of a three-year effort to penetrate the night-time secrets of the cat that walks on its own.

As the daylight fades, most animals try to find somewhere safe to hide away from night-hunters like the male. Tension increases as the day dies. Baboons seek refuge in the tallest of trees.

As our eyesight fails, we turn to the unique video camera, that can record full color pictures in very low light.

Here is the female, whom we can recognize by a scar on her side. She is fifteen, which is quite old for a leopard. Like all leopards, she hunts on her own. She locates her prey—an impala. But bright moonlight interferes. The impala is in a mixed herd of puku and impala, all of whom are able to spot her movements from hundreds of yards away.

The transformation comes as the night turns. Now, in the pitch dark, a second camera, which is sensitive to infra-red frequencies, allows us to still see clearly.

Now both antelope and leopard have much more limited vision, though it's uncertain just how much they can see. Hunter and hunted rely on their other senses, like hearing. The leopard can't make one, single, sound. It's pitch dark, and remember, only we can see her. The antelope use every sense to try and detect any danger that might be out there. The leopard strains not the heard—even the rustle of a leaf would give the alarm.

She must get nearer to strike, but when she's as close of this, even the sound of her breathing could give her away. Perhaps it was her scent that betrayed her. But the puku and impala still don't know exactly where she is, until she moves off, and gives the game away. Her tail signals that she's given up, even though the antelope can barely see her.

For the first time, we were able to see clearly the true tension of the hunt at night. Traveling to Namibia, the leopard's secretes are unravelled differently.

Here, scientist Philip Stander has joined the Ju/Hoan bushmen to piece together the nocturnal behavior of the leopards in these semi-arid lands. There is very little game in this vast landscape.

Radio tracking from the air, Philip is able to locate different leopards in the study. He pinpoints the last location for the bushmen. As in Zambia, the leopards are so shy and secretive in the day that they're hardly ever seen. But for the Ju/Hoan this is no problem. They don't need to see leopards to discover their secrets. All they require are footprints. They interpret the faintest of prints to reconstruct the leopards actions. They find that a young antelope has been killed by a male leopard. His tracks reveal he was as close as twelve feet from the calf before he pounced.

As hunters themselves, their knowledge of nature is unmatched; their interpretations are almost one hundred percent accurate. Along with Philip, they have recorded in meticulous detail over a hundred night-time hunts. Their observations reveal that leopards often have to stalk as much as ninety feet before they can get close enough to spring.

The team has confirmed that the solitary leopard is indeed a superlative hunter.

In Zambia's river valley, the leopards have a choice of a wider variety of prey. In their treetop refuge, the boons are hard to catch, but sometimes the male makes the attempt. This time, he doesn't have to be quiet. Instead, whilst the moon is out, he employs what we call "psychological warfare." The noise of his advance creates great alarm because baboons have poor night vision. He takes advantage of this by deliberately terrorizing the troop, trying to force one of them up a branch of no return.

If the moon stays out, there might be just enough light for the baboons to keep one step ahead. They can't see much but they can hear that, somewhere close, there's a killer in their midst. But when the moon disappears, the baboons are very much at a disadvantage.

Finally, the leopard's chase has paid off. Once again, darkness was the key to his success, creating an opening which he was quick to exploit.

Because they are adaptable and opportunistic, leopards are the most successful of Africa's big cats alive today.

The baboons, with their poor night-vision, are inevitably vulnerable to predators with better eyesight.

Long ago, other primates were also almost helpless when faced with cats that could see in the dark. In southern Africa, caves containing thousands of bones, some of which were brought in by carnivores over centuries, tell the story.

Farther down in one cave, remains nearly two million years old show that for our earliest ancestors, before the priceless discovery of fire, passing the night in a cave entrance was very hazardous indeed.

Our distant ancestor, an adult australopithecus robustus, and a youngster whose skull shows puncture marks made by the teeth of a leopard.

With fire and the development of more sophisticated weapons, later hominids were no longer helpless victims in the dark. They had become top predators.

Young Kui and the other Ju/Haan bushmen in Namibia follow a traditional lifestyle which has been handed down to them through the generations.

It takes time and skill to make fire, but it does help to keep predators at bay during the long African nights.

For thousands of years, the bushmen have been hunters and gatherers. Today, their ability to find, track and hunt animals is phenomenal. After all, their lives depend upon it.

They use the larva of a beetle as a deadly poison, and prepare for the hunt with ritual. Here, what we call magic and supernatural powers are a way of life. Going into trance helps them pass into the spirit world where animals become people, and people animals.

The leopard was worshipped for its prowess as a hunger, but even so, the full extent of its skills was hidden by the black of night.

In Zambia, the infra-red camera continues to reveal more about the leopard's life at night. The female is trying to catch puku fawns. In the absence of moonlight, she can't find them by sight, so she's using her nose.

Young, inexperienced puku would be easy prey, but the fawns tuck themselves away at a distance from the herd, and their bodies are almost scentless.

She has found one and, once again, has to close the gap without rustling a single blade of grass.

In the dead of night, the fawn can't see nearly as well as our camera. The fawn has grown tense; she can see something, but not enough to be sure. In addition, there's an unfamiliar scent in the air. The fawn strains her ears for a confirmation of danger, as the wind changes direction.

Luck just wasn't on the leopard's side. Once again, it was her scent that betrayed her. The stalk demanded so much concentration and control that she's quite exhausted. She also has other urgent business: scent marking.

There's so much prey here that the leopards can have small home ranges which overlap. Occasionally, they even scavenge from one another's kill.

Generally, though, each tries to avoid the other, and marking along regular pathways helps, since the scent contains vital information, telling other leopards which individual was around, and when. Scent glans on her feet leave pungent signs of her presence. Tonight, she wants to attract a male, because she's coming into season.

She calls, using the ground as a sounding board so her message travels as far as possible. A male nearby responds. As they approach one another, the female becomes very cautious. The male seems belligerent. In this dangerous liaison, she must react quickly. The male is much bigger and much stronger than she is, so she has to be careful that her presence does not irritate him.

After many hours, she considers it safe for her to come closer. They mate frequently for three nights and days. This is the only involvement that males have in family life.

Back in Zambia, a young female has been trapped. She is one of eighteen leopards in Philip Sander's study. She was radio-collared as a cub, and now her collar needs to be loosened.

The Ju/Hoan have adapted their traditional bows and arrows to fire tranquilizing darts. The bushmen rarely see leopards in the flesh, and they fall into silence.

Although the collar looks big, it's quite lightweight and won't impede her movements.

They've discovered that leopards here have huge home ranges. One male regularly traveled an area of over four hundred square miles—a necessity in this arid Namibian environment where prey is very dispersed.

In such vast areas, Philip's radio tracking makes it possible to find the animals in the study, though not to see them very often. But the bushmen will follow every detail of their lives from their tracks. They're releasing this leopard in good condition, but having just become independent, she's at a most critical stage.

The majority of young leopards, when they start to fend for themselves, die of hunger.

The bushmen are now tracking a female with a half-grown cub which they believe is still dependent on her for food.

The find the remains of a genet. By carefully analyzing the carcass, they're surprised to discover that it was the cub that made the kill.

They know that this is the first time the cub has made its own kill, a sign that she will soon be independent. But the study averages show that she will continue to rely on her mother for a few more months yet.

Philip and the bushmen are constantly adding to the data, confirming aspects of leopard behavior that had only been guessed at before. They will leave the carcass for the cub, as they know she will return here, in a few hours, to finish off her feast.

Back in Zambia, our female is with her cub. Since he's only nine-months-old, he's still got a few more months of security with his mother. The cub is the only survivor from her last liter of two.

The scar on her flank is easy to see. It may be the result of a baboon bite, five years ago, which has never completely healed, but it doesn't seem to cause her any problems.

She has to catch much more food than normal now, not only to feed her cub but also to keep herself in top condition. This necessity leads her to hunt in the day, but she usually waits for the security of nightfall before she brings the cub to her kill.

She has eaten a portion of the impala during the day, but still it weighs nearly as much as she does. Old for a leopard, she's still strong enough to haul her kill up, out of the reach of others.

But the young are foolish, and he's wasted all her hard work. He still has time to learn from his mother, who, with fifteen years of experience, is an expert in leopard survival tactics. The findings from Philip's study in Namibia show that the main reason leopards are as solitary and secretive as they are is that it benefits them not to draw attention to their kills. Leopards are relatively small cats, and in most of Africa there are other larger, more gregarious carnivores, and terrifyingly expert scavengers.

Not far away from our female leopard, hyenas and crocodiles wrestle over the remains of a buffalo.

The moon has disappeared, and the hungry male is on the prowl. He has several advantages on his side. He knows every inch of the ground, and he's learned exactly where the impala like to spend the night. Most importantly, there's no moonlight to betray him. The leopard makes the kill.

The big male impala is too heavy for him to haul up a tree. Instead, he feeds quickly, getting a meal at the same time as reducing the weight of the carcass. It's a race against time, because the alarm calls are alerting others in the neighborhood.

Every night, hyenas haunt the leopards' favorite hunting grounds. There are so many leopards that the hyenas have learned tro react quickly to any alarm calls. If they're fast, they stand a good chance of scavenging a relatively easy meal.

When he's on the ground with his kill, the male is at his most vulnerable. He's nowhere near as powerful as the hyena, and a fight to save his prize would risk his life. However, the male, like all leopards, is good at waiting. Even a small snack is worth having.

Leopards have other serious competitors, as the team in Namibia discover. The group goes into investigate because, from the air, Philip has been monitoring a signal which shows one of their leopards hasn't moved for five days. There's the remains of the leopard's kill, with an unusual mixture of tracks. There are prints from leopard, antelope, hyena, and lion. Then, old Kui finds the remains of a female leopard. Sadly, it's the mother of the adolescent female whose radio collar was changed earlier.

From the tracks, the bushmen discover that two lionesses were attracted by the scent of the kill, and surprised the leopard in the tree. She tried to escape but the lionesses cornered and killed her on the ground. Later on, hyenas scavenge from her carcass.

Confrontation amongst big cats can be fatal, but leopards have a far more deadly competitor—us. From the earliest days, when our ancestors were victims, the tables have turned. Every year, people trap, poison, snare and shoot thousands of leopards because of fear; because they kill sheep and cattle; or because they want their skills.

In Zambia, it's late afternoon and very hot. Our male leopard is making good use of this quiet time to survey his range. He must be familiar with every bush and every small ravine, so when darkness falls and hunting begins, he can utilize this imitate knowledge to his advantage. And on bright moonlit nights, knowing a useful ravine by which to approach his prey, could be the difference between success and failure.

Eventually, satisfied that his territory is in order, he seeks out some quiet shade, for a restorative snooze. His presence is duly noted. He makes the puku wary and nervous, though he poses no threat to them in the day time, as they could easily outrun him at this distance.

They decide not to take any chances. With the disturbance finally over, he at last has the chance to nap. But not for long, with the arrival of a curious visitor. The male leopard pays little attention. And the giraffes, too, soon lose interest.

Then, a bigger problem arrives on the scene: harassment on a grand scale. Baboons, like us, tend to have the upper hand in the day. No longer handicapped by the dark, and with their sight unimpaired, a small troop has discovered him. This is a real threat. Baboons kill leopards, but this time, there are not enough big males to corner him. So they bark and harass him, warning the rest of the troop of his presence.

Even under this pressure, the male is confident enough not to run, which would give the baboons a chance to attack. But he is wary, and a little disturbed.

He tries to tuck himself away, out of their sight, for a little peace. It's a standoff, at least until nightfall, when he can once again regain the upper hand.


The moon sets, creating almost perfect darkness, the conditions in which the female and her cub feel most comfortable.

The female has caught a hare for her cub, but he won't share his prize with her. His appetite satisfied, she leaves him alone while she tries to catch something bigger that will last both of them a few days. The black night promises her a good opportunity.

Rolling in the dirt might be playful, or it might help to hide her scent.

In their eagerness to snatch a kill, hyenas try to shadow hunting leopards, but with their clumsy attempts to find the leopard in the dark, they often interrupt and spoil a hunt. Hyenas will generally only attack leopards to steal their kill, so the female stays her ground.

With hyenas dogging her footsteps, she lets time pass, to allow the antelope to settle down and the bored hyenas to depart.

Meanwhile, the cub investigates a prickly problem. Armed with sharp quills and quick reflexes, porcupines are not the easiest of prey for the inexperienced.

Wisely, the cub leaves it well alone.

Since the woodland seems to be clear of hyenas, it's time for his mother to try hunting once again. She employs a new tactic, which appears to break all the rules. Contrary to everything we've seen before, she appears to deliberately stamp her paw. This time, she seems to want the antelope to hear. And now, she raises the pressure by continuing to use sound to cause confusion. Her strategy could only work in near-total darkness.

The antelope can't see her well, but every now and then they can hear her. She's hoping one of them will panic, go the wrong way, and she'll be ready to ambush, hidden in the darkness.

Until now, no one had ever seen or even suspected that leopards used such remarkable maneuvers. One thing is certain: just when you think you understand them, they do something utterly surprising. It is little wonder that the people who live alongside the leopard, and who know it most intimately, should admire it so much, and praise it so greatly.

The beautiful death, who puts on a spotted robe when he goes to his victim. The playful killer, whose loving embrace splits the antelope's heart.

__: Gentle hunter. His tail plays on the ground, while he crushes the skull. Beautiful death, who puts on his spotted robe when he goes to his victim. Playful killer, whose loving embrace splits the antelope's heart.


Leopards of the Night

Hosted by
David Attenborough

Amanda Barrett & Owen Newman

Series Producer
Keith Scholey

Coordinating Producer
Stephen Sweigart

Owen Newman

Stuart Napier

Dubbing Editor
Lucy Rutherford

Dubbing Mixer
Andrew Wilson

Coproduction Assistant
Andrea Cross

Field Assistants
Vernon Baillie
Jason Alphonsin

Scientific Consultants
Philip Stander
Philippa Haden
The Ju/ 'Hoan

Production Co-ordinators
Philippa Lawson
Liz Appleby
Clare Flegg

Special Thanks
South Luangwa National Park
National Parks & Wildlife Services, Zambia
Philip Berry Langford
Penny Lapper
Xen Vlahakis
Gasper Lawall
Robert Chulu

NOVA Series Graphics
National Ministry of Design

NOVA Theme
Mason Daring
Martin Brody

Closed Captioning
The Caption Center

Production Secretaries
Queene Coyne
Linda Callahan

Paul Marotta
Thalassa Skinner
Diane Buxton

Unit Managers
Jessica Maher
Cesar Cabral

Nancy Marshall

Business Manager
Laurie Cahalane

Post Production Assistant
Franziska Blome

Associate Producer
Post Production
Carla Fremlin

Post Production Editor
Rebecca Nieto

Post Production Supervisor
Mark Geffen

Senior Editor
Program Development
Stephen Lyons

Senior Science Editor
Evan Hadingham

Senior Producer
Coproductions and Acquisitions
Melanie Wallace

Managing Director
Alan Ritsko

Executive Producer
Paula S. Apsell

A BBC Production
in association with WGBH/Boston
© 1998 WGBH Educational Foundation
All rights reserved.


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