I was having a discussion with a few of the Londolozi trackers recently, and we were bandying around the idea of having a ‘favourite’ leopard, and if we each did, who was it? Life Sibuyi’s was the Vomba female, Equalizer’s was the Piva male if I remember correctly, and the Mashaba female was a firm favourite amongst the tracking team as well. The reasons for each favouritism were many and varied, but a common denominator amongst the team’s favourite leopards was the prominence of each leopard as a well-known territorial individual. The golden coat of the Vomba female was viewed for 16 years, and the Piva male, although not born here, has distinctive small tracks that the team has followed along many a game path. He has been tracked and found on numerous occasions.
It might seem like an obvious outcome, but the lesser known and shyer individuals didn’t feature at all on the list. The Ximpalapala female was always running away when we got to within 100m of her. The Tatowa female lives in the grasslands where tracking her is a monumental task, and the 4:4 male who was killed last year (and my personal favourite leopard) was almost vilified during the discussion as a leopard who was hardly worth tracking, so great an area did he cover and so brief would be the sighting if he was eventually found due to his skittish nature and tendency to disappear into the nearest impenetrable thicket.
Ironically, it was exactly for that reason that he was my favourite of all the leopards that roam or have roamed Londolozi. I think there are huge amounts to be said for not knowing everything about something. It’s the mystery that keeps us coming back for more, whether to the bush, to the same leopard, or even in a relationship. Whilst the saying that familiarity breeds contempt isn’t entirely applicable in the context of the bush, it is fact that enough knowledge about a certain subject or animal can eventually detract slightly from the viewing of it. Maybe ‘detract’ is the wrong word, but thankfully the bushveld is so continuously stimulating that there is very little risk of anytime spent out there ever becoming boring.
The magic of this environment, and one of the main things that sustains those who work here, is that you can never know everything. There is always something new to be learnt, and an open mind combined with humility will open a window into the most fantastic world imaginable. The unknown is often wildly exciting, as the feeling thereof can transport you back to how you felt on your very first time out in the bush. I once watched an interview with Steve Tyler, the lead singer of the band Aerosmith, in which he talked about the sense of euphoria he gets every time he steps out on stage. Once that feeling goes, he says, he’ll know it’ll be time to pack it in.
It’s the same thing out here. I know that when I can’t find that feeling anymore, it’ll be time to move on, as sad as that day will be.
A few days ago Elmon Mhlongo found tracks of a female leopard and two cubs near Ximpalapala koppie.
Now, we have a fair idea that the Ingrid Dam female is territorial in that area, although we know next to nothing about her. Sightings are irregular at best, and about the only information we have is that she raised a cub to independence through 2014 and 2015, and a subsequent litter of hers, viewed once by ranger Garrett Fitzpatrick and tracker Life Sibuyi, was lost.
Now all of a sudden we had evidence of what we presumed was her with a new litter.
Then this morning the Tracker Academy was doing some training near out western boundary when an explosion in the grass near the road as they drove by made them swerve in to investigate, and there they found the Ingrid Dam female suffocating the impala she had just taken down in front of them. We arrived on the scene about 10 minutes later, only a few moments after two hyenas had robbed the kill from her, but we were able to confirm both the identity of the leopard and the fact that she is definitely raising two cubs (evidenced by the suckle marks on her belly).
Discussing the unknown and its appeal, I find it marvellous that on a reserve in which we pride ourselves on knowing about the territorial leopards, there can still be an individual raising two cubs here for at least two months (they would be very unlikely to be walking with their mother at a younger age than this) without us having the slightest clue.
No one has seen the cubs yet, and maybe no one will for another two months.
That, too, is marvellous.