Thursday was one of the best days I’ve had in a long time.
If you are expecting photos of an amazing sighting then go no further, because there aren’t any. This is simply a story of the type of experience that makes us feel alive out here in the bush, what gives us energy, and what we absolutely live for while we do this job! It’s a goodie…
For those of you who read the post on our blog two days ago, you would have seen that we followed the Nhlanguleni female into the Sand River, but were unable to go further with the vehicle after she crossed the main channel and entered a maze of rocks and debris. Rich Siwela, Londolozi’s Head Tracker, was informed of the situation: leopard with cubs, den-site unknown, was he up for the challenge? We left you hanging there…
Now those who have met Richard will know he is a man of few words (understatement). A few directions every now and then to the ranger he is working with, the odd gruff command, and a lifetime of experience in tracking and finding animals is all he has ever needed. Rich has the attitude that I consider to be an absolute necessity in the best trackers; he takes it personally when he can’t find the animal! The best way to approach him in a situation like Thursday’s is to ever-so-slightly hint that the task might be a bit too much for any man. He’ll take the bait in a heart-beat, giving you a withering look and quite possibly a quiet rebuke, and ask what time do you want to get on with it. He has unshakeable confidence in his own ability.
After I approached him with the possibility of finding a new litter of cubs, he was all for it, and told me to be at the Ranger’s Room at 14:30 sharp. Tracking Academy graduates Richard Ntabeni and Innocent Ngwenya, also superb trackers themselves, caught wind of the expedition and opted to come along, as did ranger Garrett Fitzpatrick. The five of us set out in the heat of the afternoon, GoPro in hand to record the action.
Leaving the vehicle near the river, we first had to find a way across the main channel. Being not quite as agile as a leopard, we all had soaking feet by the time we got to the other side, but reassembled to start the track.
Getting to the point where the Nhlanguleni female had crossed in the morning, Innocent was the first to get on her tracks, and what Garrett and I had the privilege of witnessing for the next hour was a first-hand masterclass of tracking at its finest. There were some relatively easy sandy sections where the tracks were quite simple to follow, but over very difficult sections like rocks and ground that had been baked hard by the sun (and which the recent rain washed all traces of dust from), Richard, Richard and Innocent never faltered. The longest time they couldn’t find a track for was no more than a few minutes, and by working as a team they soon had us on the northern bank of the river. We had had to move relatively slowly through the river thickets, as the area abounds with hippos and buffalo, but thankfully the terrain opened up slightly as we climbed out of the river itself.
Here the going got tough, and the rock-hard ground revealed little to the untrained eye. Going on only faint scuff-marks and slightly discoloured patches of soil however, the three trackers were able to stick doggedly to the route the leopard had taken.
By now it was really hot, and as we descended into a deep drainage line towards a shady pool of water at the bottom, a palpable change came over everybody. Knowing the rough extent of the Nhlanguleni female’s territory, we were sure she wouldn’t go too much further than the point we were at. Seeing the shade and the pool and knowing what a perfect spot it would be for a leopard to spend the day, we automatically bunched together. We exchanged a few brief words, asking each other how much further the leopard was likely to go, and all reached the unanimous conclusion that she couldn’t be too far away. Tracks led into and out of the little depression where the pool was, indicating that she had spent quite a bit of time there; the next step was to figure which set of tracks leading away from the pool was freshest, and follow them.
Out of the drainage line the ground was very hard, with no tracks to be seen. Each of us began casting around in a different direction; Garret and Richard N. to the west, Innocent to the north, and myself and Richard S. to the east. I was on the road that was nearby to see if she had crossed it, and Rich was following the course of the drainage line.
The two of us had barely gone 30 metres before a low growl emanated from the base of a tamboti tree about 30 metres ahead. We were about 20 metres apart, but we both heard it at the same time and immediately froze, one foot poised in the air. The guttural noise came again, louder and more forceful this time; it was the distinct throaty growl of an angry leopard, and we straight away knew we had found the female.
Backing away quickly before she charged us, we still couldn’t see her over the lip of the drainage, but as we retreated, the unmistakeable form of a very small cub broke cover from the stream-bed and scuttled up the far bank to disappear amongst a thick cluster of logs and bushes. We had found the cub(s) as well!
We moved away to a safe distance, calling the others and letting them know the situation. Handshakes were exchanged all round, and the trackers were congratulated on an exceptional piece of work. Hearts were racing. In a situation or moment like that, whether you see the animal or not is actually irrelevant. It is the tracking that matters and the achievement in finding what you were looking for that really gives one a thrill, and this was evident by the huge grins that everyone was wearing as we high-fived and laughed amongst ourselves while we moved away.
This would have been the first time that the cubs would probably have ever seen a human being, and one of the few times the Nhlanguleni female has been tracked and found on foot, so we didn’t want to stress them out further by staying in the area.
Moving back to the spot a little over an hour later with a Land Rover, there was no further sign of any of the leopards. We think the mother had moved the cubs back into the Sand River. To be honest though, we weren’t all that disappointed. We had already achieved what we set out to do. We can now confirm that the Nhlanguleni female has at least one cub and it is alive and well.
As mentioned in Thursday’s post, the female lives in a difficult area to track and find her, and we don’t anticipate regular sighting(s) of the cubs for the next while. They are still too young to be taken to kills, but the day that their mother takes them to their first should be coming soon.
For now, we are simply content in the knowledge that they are out there….