Botswana is one of five adjacent countries within whose borders lies KAZA, the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, the world’s largest transboundary conservation area. While KAZA is important as the stronghold of half of Africa’s elephants, it is also home to significant percentages of the continent’s carnivores, including lions, leopards, cheetah, and wild dogs. And it was carnivore sightings that proved to be the central storyline of our Botswana Green Season Photo Safari. Here are three such stories from this amazing trip:

Lions, Lions everywhere

It was four in the morning on our first night in Botswana when I was wakened from my sleep by an unmistakable sound: the bone-rattling roar of a lion coursing through my body. Given the volume, the animal that made it was nearby. As I did every night at Kalahari Plains Camp, I had chosen to sleep in my sky bed, a platform above my tent allowing me to enjoy an unforgettable night under the stars. At that moment, I felt both exhilarated and more than a little exposed.

Lion, Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Botswana. © WWF-US / Jeff Muller

It turned out there was no real cause for concern, even though we had lions near our camp all three days in the Kalahari. For two nights we slept beside the dominant male from one of the local prides, and he regularly made his presence known. The third day he moved on, and in his place arrived two older females and six younger lions from another pride who found mid-day refuge under the trees at the edge of camp before taking advantage of the camp’s waterhole, the only one for miles around.

Lions, Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Botswana. © WWF-US / Jeff Muller

In fact, our experience with lions began even before that first wakeup call. Starting with our first game drive in the Kalahari, we spent time with these mighty hunters on almost every drive. We got up-close to the famous black-maned lions of the Kalahari. We found a scarred yet noble male in Qorokwe.  And, thanks to some inspired driving by our trip leader, Lets Kamogelo, we even got a “money shot” of a magnificent male leaping across a stream in Xigera. To see a lion in the wild would make anyone’s trip complete. To spend nearly every day with them—well, that goes beyond superlatives.

Male Lion, Xigera concession, Okavango Delta, Botswana. © WWF-US / Jeff Muller

Giving Chase to a Leopard

It was our first full day in Xigera concession when the call came in on the radio: a female leopard had been spotted taking down an impala. Our guide, Kitso, told us to “hold on tight,” and the chase began. After a lively 20-minute drive across the concession, we were closing in, along with two other vehicles. The leopard had ducked into some forested thickets, and each driver was in constant communication as they tried to find her in this tangle of vegetation. Suddenly, she materialized in front of us—a gorgeous, powerful cat.

Leopard, Xigera Concession, Okavango Delta, Botswana. © WWF-US / Jeff Muller

Over the next 30 minutes, our guides demonstrated a combination of incredible foresight, to know where she was heading, and acrobatic driving, as we navigated our way through the thickets in hot pursuit. Thanks to their undeniable skills, we had the opportunity to follow this black and gold wonder and witness her hunt a vervet monkey—something she managed to catch in the blink of an eye.

Leopard, Xigera concession, Okavango Delta, Botswana. © WWF-US / Jeff Muller

We would cross paths with this leopard and her two older cubs on many other occasions during our stay. We found them in the grasses, in the trees, and even relaxing on a two-story-tall termite mound. And we witnessed so many behaviors: hunting, feeding, even cleaning each other. I would have counted myself lucky just to get a glimpse at a leopard on this trip. To have spent so much time with three of them, well… that was a minor miracle.

Leopard, Xigera concession, Okavango Delta, Botswana. © WWF-US / Jeff Muller

An Unexpected Visitor

We were on our first morning drive in Qorokwe, on our way to meet the other vehicle for our mid-morning snack, when we came upon a group of blue wildebeest at a watering hole. Because they had two tawny calves with them, we elected to delay our rendezvous so we could take advantage of this opportunity.

Blue Wildebeest, Qorokwe concession, Okavango Delta, Botswana. © WWF-US / Jeff Muller

Just as we were about to resume our journey, we noticed two unexpected visitors coming over the hill—a pair of spotted hyenas! Our guides had pointed out hyena tracks earlier in the trip, but this was out first sighting. While the one animal shifted course and ran away, the other made his way down to the water for a drink. He was in no hurry and was generous with the time he shared. After a glorious 15 minutes with us, he was satiated and headed off in pursuit of his partner.

Spotted Hyena at water hole, Qorokwe Concession, Okavango Delta, Botswana. © WWF-US / Jeff Muller

Throughout the trip we seemed to constantly have this kind of incredible luck. We saw honey badgers, black-backed jackals, cheetah, bat-eared fox, even an aardwolf—a nocturnal canid that an experienced guide said he had only seen three times in his life!

Black-backed Jackal, Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Botswana. © WWF-US / Jeff Muller

The presence of predators is one sign of an ecosystem’s health. Given the number of carnivores we saw, there’s no doubt that the Kalahari and Okavango are healthy and need our continued attention to remain that way. Botswana truly is carnivore country, and I can’t wait to come back for another visit.

Cheetah, Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Botswana. © WWF-US / Jeff Muller

By Jeff Muller, WWF