How a love for big cats and the ‘myth’ of the leopard sparked this wildlife photographer’s career

(CNN) — People travel across oceans and from the other side of the world for a chance to see the wonders of Kruger National Park. The South African game reserve was established more than 120 years ago and ranks among the best national parks in the world. Bucket-list adventurers visit with the hope of encountering the “big five” — lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos and buffalo — and, with any luck, capturing a memory-worthy photo in the process.

“Our animals basically make wildlife photography fashionable,” says Rodney Nombekana, a safari guide who prides himself on giving visitors a camera roll of reasons to fall in love with Kruger’s wildlife. “By doing so, not only do they appreciate the wildlife but they also get involved in conservation of our natural world.”

Tourists on Nombekana’s safaris may well find themselves in a prime position to capture the perfect shot — because Nombekana is a wildlife photographer himself, a passion he says he fell into years ago while leading a safari group through a different park.

“It just so happened that a leopard was sitting on a beautiful rock during the sunset, and I took out my cell phone and I took a picture of this leopard,” Nombekana recalls. “When I got home, I looked at the picture, and I realized that it would be nice if taken from a proper camera.”

So Nombekana bought a starter camera kit. As with the leopard, he found himself drawn to capturing images of big cats — a fascination he says was likely sparked during his childhood in the rural areas of the Eastern Cape.

“The elders of the village always told us about the leopard,” he explains. “It was always a myth that there was this animal that was called a leopard. We actually never really saw it. It’s always been a dream of mine to actually see a leopard in the wild and when I first saw one, it was just unbelievable.”

Look through the gallery above to see how the leopard and other big cats have continued to hold a special meaning for Nombekana.

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