We set out on morning game drive with a typical initial plan in mind; look for lions. Barely 15 minutes in though, tracker Freddy Ngobeni suddenly raised his hand for me to stop the vehicle, and turned to me with an unusual expression of surprise and concern. To our amazement we had stumbled across tracks of the Xidulu female and her two young cubs but the tracks were far outside their usual territory. This 15-year-old leopardess and her litter have possibly been put under pressure from a new mother, the Nkoveni female, which has apparently been forcing them south into the territory of the neighbouring Tamboti female.
As we followed the tracks of the three leopards, we were forced to speculate why the female would lead her cubs so far. Freddy was convinced that she had made a kill and returned to fetch her young cubs to it.
A few minutes later, we found tracks of the Tamboti female on top of those of the Xidulu female and her litter (Freddy and many of the other trackers are able to recognize the tracks of the individual leopards) which added a new element of intrigue. With extra exuberance at the potential of witnessing a confrontation between the leopards, we continued our pursuit.
Without any warning and in very close proximity to where we were tracking we heard a male leopard rasping, vocalising his territory and asserting his dominance in the area. The excitement was now palpable and we had not even seen any of the five leopards we were now looking for!
We moved quickly in the direction of the rasping calls, and rounding a corner suddenly came across the Piva male and the Tamboti female walking together. The Piva male stopped to slake his thirst in one of the numerous puddles now abundant after the rains, while the Tamboti female moved off into the thicket where we lost sight of her.
It was, however not over; in fact, the sighting was just beginning!
Only seconds later we heard the aggressive and undeniable growls of two leopards fighting! We raced to where we heard the growls emanating from and found the Xidulu young male perched up in a small Weeping wattle tree, commendably defending himself against the Tamboti female at the base of the tree. This interaction lasted for several minutes as the aggression displayed by both leopards continued unabated.
The Tamboti female, inherently aggressive in nature, persistently growled and attempted to climb the tree with the Xidulu young male showing equal aggression and obstinately standing his ground. The interaction culminated as the Tamboti female eventually moved off slowly and rested in the shade of a thicket not far away.
Later that morning, the Xidulu female was found, walking back in the direction of her territory with no further signs of either of her youngsters.
The feeling of unease about the fate of the cubs was only exacerbated by the fact that no sign of them was had for several days after this interaction, with many guides and trackers speculating a fatal outcome.
Fortunately, five days after this incident, both the cubs were seen back in the safety of their mother’s territory. To our delight the whole family was seen together again – albeit with a few fresh cuts – just shy of a week after the altercation with the Tamboti female.
I guess we will never know exactly what had happened the night before and where the young cubs had been hiding for such an extended period of time but at the end of an amazing sighting and an agonizingly nerve-wrecking week, they had finally reunited!