Saturday, 07 March 2015, late afternoon, we started the drive down from Panoen Thung camp to the Ban Krang camp ground where we were spending the nights while wildlife watching in Kaeng Krachan national park with two guests from the Netherlands, both biologists. We had spend the day hiking in the jungle and had so far seen a nice variety of animals including Banded Langurs, White-handed Gibbons, and Great Hornbill. We were the last ones to drive down the mountain and took our time, trying to spot any wildlife present in the area. A male Grey Peacock-Pheasant made a clear appearance browsing for seeds on the dirt road.
The daylight started to fade, and suddenly we heard a Dusky Langur family alarm-calling from a tree near the road. We had seen quite a lot of troops of these spectacled leaf monkeys, but this time we finally got to see a young orange-coloured baby. We stopped and got out of the car to get a better view of this little cute primate. They kept on alarm-calling, but we thought this was simply due to our presence.
While all our eyes were aimed at the tree with langurs, I tried to find a better gap through the leaves that were somewhat obstructing the view. Hoping for a decent picture. I walked around our car that was parked in the middle of the dirt road. And for a second I thought my mind was playing tricks on me when I looked on the road behind our car. But no. Soon I realized that I was looking straight in the eyes of a magnificent big cat. A spotted-phase Indochinese Leopard, Panthera pardus delacouri, looked at me and our guests who were still focused on the langurs, oblivious of the presence of the big cat. A serious adrenaline rush went through my body.
I doubted for a second what I should do. I was worried it would run off before the guests would see it, but I had no choice but to just talk it out loud. "LEOPARD!!!", I yelled. The cat that was just 30m away turned around. But it did not run off. It just walked off at a regular pace along the road.
It seemed quite fearless and unimpressed by our presence. At about 100m distance it stopped and turned to look into the forest. A hungry look at the langurs that we now know were not alarm-calling because of us, but for the leopard. It even sat down for a bit, all while we were standing in the middle of the road looking with binoculars and shooting some images with the camera.
The leopard probably knew that he could not surprise the langurs anymore, he had lost the game this time. So eventually, it decided to wander off. Following the road until it walked around the corner our of our view.
According to the timestamps on the various images we've taken the whole sighting lasted for about 3 minutes. That makes it by far the best quality sighting we have ever had of any wild cat species in Thailand. Seeing a wild cat in Thailand is rare, and whenever it occurs it is most often just a matter of seconds before the felines dissolve in the thick undergrowth. But this time our presence seemed to have very little influence on the behaviour of the leopard. That made this encounter even more special.
Leopards are seen relatively often in Kaeng Krachan national park, that does not mean you just go there for a couple of days and are guaranteed with a sighting. Not at all. But on most of our visits we hear that others have been lucky that day or just some days prior to that. But this time it was our turn again. From most of the stories, and also our experience, the leopards that have their territories bordering the road, seem to show little fear for cars. And our encounter even showed that it was not even impressed by us standing together in the open while observing it. Let's hope we can make many more guests happy with a view of these elegant creatures. And even more importantly let's hope this species will remain amongst us forever!