A “freebie” out in the bush is an incident that could have gone badly wrong, but didn’t. It is a close call on a day that fortune was smiling on you, and everyone walked away unscathed; a wake-up call reminding one that out here, you have to keep your wits about you. As a ranger at Londolozi, you spend many hours on foot in the bush with some of the best trackers in the industry, working to find the animals that are so sought after by guests from all over the world. Every once in awhile when on foot, you get the fright of your life, and make it back to the vehicle with an ashen face and very shaky knees.
Last week I got a freebie that shook me up properly.
The Tutlwa female leopard, one of Londolozi’s most beautiful and a favourite of mine, had last been seen over a fortnight previously, heavily pregnant. We were pretty sure she had given birth to her cubs but because she spends a large amount of time in the big block north of the Sand River and west of camp, she isn’t often encountered, and we suspected she may be denning in the river itself. She has done this before, and our hopes of seeing her youngsters in their first few months weren’t high.
On the morning in question, we were crossing the river to seek out the Nanga female, Tutlwa’s neighbour to the north-east. Just after the crossing Mike Sithole stopped us to examine a set of tracks on the road. Knowing which leopards inhabit which area, we generally have a fair idea about which leopard has left the tracks, and most of the trackers at Londolozi will actually recognize the tracks of specific leopards. Mike was pretty sure these were the tracks of the Tutlwa female, but deduced that they weren’t all that fresh, so we decided not to follow. Moving further east by a kilometre or two, we came across another set of tracks, also of a female leopard. These came from the same direction as the previous set, but these tracks looked fresh! Mike was adamant that it was the Tutlwa female again, but these were definitely worth following, so we decided to give it a crack. First prize would be to follow the tracks and find where she was keeping her cubs, but we could also potentially find her on a kill, in which case we could stick with her until she led us back to a den. Either way, we were optimistic.
Mike stayed on foot as I drove the Land Rover slowly in his wake, until a point where the tracks left the road. It was quite a hard section and we were struggling to find exactly which way she had gone, so we decided to leave the vehicle and make a wide cast down into the dry Manyelethi Riverbed. Immediately upon reaching the sand, Mike found the tracks again, and even though the substrate was large-grained and loose, the tracks were very clear, telling us just how fresh they were. They headed straight towards a big boulder field on a bend in the river where we knew the Tutlwa female had denned before, and it was at this point that we started to get really excited.
Approaching the boulders, we saw that the tracks stopped at the base of a steep section of riverbank, and gouges in the earth wall showed us where the leopard had scrambled up. Not wanting to move straight into the rocky area, Mike wanted to double-check a little further downstream in the riverbed just to make sure the tracks didn’t come out again, so I headed back to the vehicle to bring the guests a little bit closer to where we were working.
Parking on the southern side of the boulders I could see Mike about 150 metres away still in the riverbed, and he radioed me to say that a whole host of tracks moved up and down next to a pool of water, indicating that the female had been spending quite a bit of time in the area. By now we were convinced that she was keeping her cubs here, and it was at this time that I made a bad decision.
Mike and I had scrutinized the boulders through the binoculars and hadn’t seen any sign of a leopard, and I was under the impression that she had probably come in and left. From where I had parked the vehicle I could see the little boulder cluster where we had seen cubs of hers in early 2013, not 50m away, and while waiting for Mike to move to rejoin us, I decided to see if there was any sign of her using the spot as a den again.
Now, when a leopard is keeping cubs in a little nook in the rocks or a cave or crack, there is usually only room for the cubs themselves to scurry into the den. This is the whole point of it; a safe place in which larger animals like hyenas are unable to reach them. As a result, the mother leopard will usually settle just outside the den and call the cubs out to her to nurse them. Flattened grass is a sure sign that the leopardess has been spending time there, and it was this that I was looking for as I approached the rocks.
I was under no illusions as to how dangerous a female leopard with young cubs could be, so made certain I kept my distance from the possible den, looking carefully to see if there was any sign of flattened grass outside the entrance. There was none, and this is where I went wrong.
Because of the lack of grass outside the little cave, I concluded that she was not using this spot to hide her cubs. The problem was I was unaware just how much space there was inside the cave itself.
The previous time we had seen cubs there (Jan 2013) we had stumbled upon them quite by accident. The mother wasn’t on site, so we left immediately, not wanting to disturb the little ones with our presence. We had therefore formed no reliable estimate as to the amount of space in the den itself. In my memory, it was a small recess under the boulders in which only the cubs could fit.
As it turns out, the den was (is) more extensive than that, and is quite able to fit a fully grown female leopard and her cubs.
The fact that no flattened grass was visible outside the cave entrance lulled me into a sense of false security, and out of sheer curiosity to examine what I thought was a once-off den-site (and now empty), I approached.
She was in there.
Things happened very fast after that. As I lent down to look inside the supposedly empty cave, I was greeted by what I can only describe as the face of death, with lips curled back in a hideous snarl, eyes bulging as in a ball of golden fury she erupted with a roar from seemingly out of the ground less than two metres away. Leaping back with my feet scrabbling for purchase, I was acutely aware of how my last moment in the form of a spitting, snarling mother leopard was upon me, but before I could reach any conclusion as to just what a shame that was, she had bounded off in the opposite direction, growling as she went.
On wobbly knees I headed straight back to the vehicle, took a moment to recompose myself and then drove to pick up Mike. Needless to say, we were by now pretty convinced that the leopard was in fact keeping cubs there after all.
Mike had been making his way back to the car, and although out of sight, had heard the leopard’s roar (and probably a high pitched squeal from yours truly) so could conclude pretty accurately what had happened.
We left the area, not wanting to disturb the cubs any more than they already may have been. Knowing they were probably there was good enough for us, and the fright the leopard had given me served as a reminder as to just how quickly things can go wrong. You know what they say about assumption, and in this instance it nearly cost me dearly. I assumed the cave was too small to hold an adult leopard. I assumed that with no flattened grass outside there could be no den there. Assuming I knew exactly what was what is a mistake I won’t be making twice.
We will probably be avoiding the boulder field for some time as the cubs will be too small to view properly. If the Tutlwa female does a good job of keeping them protected, we may enjoy some amazing viewing in a month or two’s time, but for now, the knowledge that they are probably still there and safely secreted away can keep us happy.
Written and Photographed by James Tyrrell