Andrea Sithole is one of the best trackers at Londolozi. He makes it all look annoyingly easy.

Great trackers don’t just have the ability to spot a track and see what it is. Nor does their skill end at being able to follow a line of prints, or at least connect the dots between prints that are scattered or widely spaced. The real skill is to be able to visualise exactly what happened, hours after the event, from nothing more than a few scrapes and indentations on the ground. Whilst some people will see a track as just that and nothing more, the best in the business will be able to reconstruct an entire scene in their mind’s eye.

So when a slight scrape across the road caused Andrea to lift his hand from the tracker’s seat, calling for a halt, only a short while ago, I was quite excited to hear what he had to say.

His initial look of excitement faded quite quickly though to one of unconcealed disappointment when what he had initially hoped were leopard tracks turned out to be those of a hyena.

“Look here”, he said, “this hyena was dragging a kill over the road. You can see the claw marks”. Now for the uninitiated this might sound foreign, but one of the simple differences between a leopard’s track an a hyena’s lies in the protractile nature of a leopard’s claws. A leopard walks with them sheathed, whilst a hyena has its claws out permanently, which is evidenced at the end of the toes in their tracks.

leopard track

Rounded toes with no claw marks visible are distinctive of a leopard’s tracks.

hyena

The claw marks at the end of this hyena’s track are clearly visible.

To explain briefly: Andrea had seen a line in the gravel where something had been dragged across the road, and as we drove past he had caught a brief glimpse of a predator’s track. Indicating for me to reverse, he climbed down to inspect the tracks more closely, and declared the drag mark to have been made by a hyena. Scrutinising the area a bit more closely, he pointed to another slight scuff, slightly off to the side of the drag mark.

“Female leopard”, he announced.

His theory was that a female leopard had killed something and then been robbed by the hyena. The hyena had dragged the kill away in an attempt to get it somewhere where it could feed at leisure, but the leopard had followed, probably hoping to try and steal some of the carcass back again.

He was 100% correct.

Following the tracks into the thicket, we were walking very quietly when Andrea clicked his fingers and pointed up into a nearby knobthorn tree. Following the direction that he was pointing, I spied the half eaten carcass of an impala ewe that he had seen. “Look here”, whispered Andrea, “here’s where the leopard was running with the kill.” Deep pug marks clearly indicated where she had been moving swiftly, and it was easy to imagine how she had snatched what remained of the carcass from the hyena and hightailed it for the safety of the tree. The hyena had most likely eaten its fill and moved off slightly, opening a small window of opportunity for the leopard to snatch back what was left of her meal. The tree she had hoisted in was itself proof of her having being under pressure; Knobthorn trees are not often used by leopards, as their thorns are sharp and their bark is flaky and will easily come off under a leopard’s claws, potentially causing it to fall back to the ground. But if you have a hyena on your tail, you have to take what you can get.

There was no sign of the leopard, but since we were in an area frequented by the Xidulu female, we figured that it may be her, and she may have gone to fetch her cubs to bring them to the kill. As we walked back to the vehicle, the sudden click of Andrea’s fingers froze me with one foot in the air, and again following where he was pointing, I caught a brief glimpse of the unmistakeable form of a leopard slinking away through the wet grass. “It’s definitely her,” was Andrea’s confident pronouncement.

xidulu

The Xidulu female leopard.

We got back to the Land Rover and moved back to where we had seen the leopard last. It was indeed the Xidulu female.

andrea

Andrea pointing up at a leopard in a tree. Or maybe he’s trying to get better radio reception.

She groomed herself for a bit before going to sleep, and we left her to it, determined to come back later to see if she had brought the cubs to the kill.

Let’s just recap for a bit. From a simple scrape on the road, two clear hyena tracks and a slight scuff that told him where a leopard had stepped, Andrea had worked out the following:

A female leopard (1) had made a kill (2), which had then been stolen by a hyena (3). The hyena had dragged the kill off (4) but had been followed by the leopard (5) as she was probably hoping to steal some of the kill back. He then predicted (from recognizing her tracks mainly) that the leopard was most likely the Xidulu female (6).
He then had to follow the tracks to attempt to prove his theory, which he did in less than 10 minutes.
On every point he was proved correct, and this was all from a few marks on the ground that your average visitor to the bush wouldn’t have spotted if they had been standing on them, let alone perched on the bonnet of a vehicle that is moving along at 20km/h.

I just wanted to recount this story briefly so that people are aware of it, and state that with Andrea, as with many of the superbly gifted trackers at Londolozi, this was just another day on the job. There was no huge drama involved, no massive desire from him for adulation, it was just a standard track-and-find that he probably thinks nothing of, but that for mere mortals like the rest of us was an absolute textbook example of the skill level, insight and understanding of his craft that places only a very few trackers on the highest of pedestals.

And if you’re wondering if the cubs were there later, check back in in the next day or two…

About the Author

James Tyrrell

Photographic Guide/Media Team

James had hardly touched a camera when he came to Londolozi, but his writing skills were well developed, and he was quickly snapped up by the Londolozi blog team as a result. An environment rich in photographers helped him develop the photographic skills ...

View James's profile

21 Comments

on What’s The Story?

Join the conversationJoin the conversation

Lynn Hurry
Guest

For best viewing/ taking pics of spoor have the sun in front of you, (as with the pic of the Hyena spoor) . Having it behind you creates a reverse image effect. (Standing proud instead of as an indentation.)

Laura Eberly
Guest

Fantastic! She is a wonderful leopard, we were fortunate enough to see her in 2014 with both her female cubs. They both are independent now to the East of you. Great Mother!! Thank you!

Jill Larone
Guest

James, absolutely astounding recount of a normal day in this extraordinary man’s life! I would give anything to be able to spend time following Andrea, watching and learning while he tracked. That would be the most incredible experience!

James Tyrrell

Hi Jill, as I type this, Andrea is still out in the bush tracking a lion pride. He’s been following the tracks for over three hours now and insisted that we leave him out there while we headed back for breakfast. I’m expecting his radio call any minute saying he’s found them…

James Tyrrell

He got back about 20 minutes after I typed that reply, having tracked down the pride over 6.5 kilometres.

Lara Mathewson
Guest

This is fascinating and beautifully composed. I’m glad I found this blog. Looking forward to the next post!

James Tyrrell

Thanks for the comments Lara. Glad you found us 🙂

Judy Guffey
Guest

I know all the trackers are good but Freddy Ngobeni……love him!

Diane Phillips
Guest

wow, what a fascinating story. As you told it, I could see each movement and gesture. Thank you for enlightening on the wonders of a truly gifted tracker. Amazing.

Mary Beth Wheeler
Guest

Great story – awesome tracker!!

Alison Belknap
Guest

James, thank you for this interesting post, and the photograph of the gorgeous female leopard. I wonder if you (or someone) might do a blog post on poaching in or around Londolozi. Is there ever any poaching, aside from the odd small animal taken for the pot, and if not, how has Londolozi been able to avoid it? Is it your location (farther away from the Moz. border), the fences, or what? I would be very interested to read anything you at Londolozi have to say about issues such as poaching, rhino farming, lion bone trade and canned hunting. Thank you.

Bob & Lucie Fjeldstad
Guest

Wow!!! Thank you for the chronology … it was fascinating!!!!!!!

Arda
Guest

I have such immense respect and admiratie for the skills of the trackers. The story above clary shows their knowledge and love for the bush. It also saddens me sometimes, to realize how living in cities of concrete have taken away those skills to “read” nature for most of us…

Jenny
Guest

Another enthralling read James. Thank you. Thanks also for the pics of the leopard and hyena pads which illustrate the difference perfectly.
Looking forward to seeing photos of the Xidulu cubs.
Do you have any stories about hyenas? To me they are a much maligned animal. I have some wonderful photos and memories of seeing a pack of hyenas with their cubs when we were on a drive with Nick last year. The females were caring, nurturing mothers/aunties and the cubs very playful.

James Tyrrell

Hi Jenny, we have plenty of stories about hyenas! We’ll be doing a blog on them soon 🙂

Adelina
Guest

I love reading these conversation and what I want to ask is Is Londolozi part of and Beyond Lodges? Thanks

James Tyrrell

Hi Adelina,
No, Londolozi is no longer part of &Beyond. It is a stand-alone, family run lodge since 2007.

Jill Larone
Guest

Amazing James! Andrea is such an incredible tracker and person! If spending time, learning from someone, can be a bucket list wish, then Andrea is definitely on mine!

Lucas Buxton
Guest

I only managed to spend one morning with Andrea. His tracking capabilities, only few would manage to comprehend and admire.

Tim Musumba
Guest

Good tracker he is but why would he come to the conclusion that it was a female leopard and not a male?!Let me guess,it could be that a male leopard has bigger paw prints!!

James Tyrrell

100% correct

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