A couple of days ago I had what was quite possibly my most exciting moment since starting to guide in the Sabi Sand. Not because of an extraordinary sighting in the traditional sense, but rather because we found one of my favourite leopards, one who had been missing for over a year!
Among the very first leopards I saw when I started in the Sabi Sand Reserve, during January 2010, was the Ravenscourt female and her two male cubs, born in April 2009. These leopards spent the majority of their time in the far western portion of the Londolozi traversing area. This was where I spent the early part of my career in the Sabi Sand and, as such, I was privileged to watch these cubs as they grew up. The one cub had a 3:3 spot pattern and the other a 4:3 pattern, but they had completely different personalities, which made them quite easy to identify. The 3:3 cub was extremely relaxed and would often be found posing in a tree. Ironically, the first good leopard portrait I got was of this cub perched in a jackal berry tree during my second week in the bush!
The 4:3 male, however, was a lot more timid and would often seek cover as soon as a vehicle approached. Although we always saw the two of them together with their mother, I was never able to get decent photographs of the 4:3 young male as he would always be hiding. One day we must have snuck up on him, as he was in quite an open area, but he quickly hid behind a fallen over marula tree and snarled to show his discontent.
Everything seemed to change from July 2010 when the 3:3 young male wandered into another male leopard’s territory and was killed. With the other cub being so skittish, we were sure that this would be the end of our viewing of the Ravenscourt cubs, but how wrong we were. The Ravenscourt 4:3 young male had a complete change in personality and became almost as relaxed in the presence of vehicles as his brother had been. I spent many hours watching this leopard grow up and he was undoubtedly one of the most photogenic leopards I have ever encountered, rivalled only by the Tamboti female.
He did very well to survive to independence, beating the statistics of 42% of litters, and left his mother during October 2010 when she came into oestrus as started mating again. At 18 months old, this was about the norm. We had fantastic viewing of him until about January 2011 when he just disappeared.
Again this wasn’t all that unusual and wasn’t completely unexpected. Once males become independent, they tend to disperse quite large distances. This stems from the fact that males have much larger territories than females. The young male leopard would have to either challenge the male leopard occupying his mother’s territory (highly unlikely) or move out of this male’s territory and start to seek his own. After January 2011, I saw the Ravenscourt young male once, having come from the properties to the west of the Londolozi traversing area and I also know of a case where he was seen close to the Londolozi camps. Other than these two instances, he hasn’t been positively identified on the property since.
Regardless of intention, one tends to develop an affinity for these animals when one spends many hours a day with them. Even though I knew that male leopards disperse, and that it would be no different with the Ravenscourt young male, I was sad to see him leave. I always checked tracks of young male leopards carefully, hoping that he would turn up again, but to no avail. I often wondered what would become of him and if he would find a territory close by.
Over a year went by and still I wondered where he had settled. I would check any photographs of unknown leopards to make sure that it wasn’t him. Then, just the other day, a couple of rangers saw an unidentified young male leopard crossing over from Malamala to an impala kill on Londolozi. On closer inspection they noticed that he had a 4:3 spot pattern. For no reason that I can articulate, I had a feeling that this was him. Any young male could have a 4:3 spot pattern, but I was sure that this was the leopard I had been longing to get just one more glimpse of. The Ravenscourt young male has a very distinctive set of spots on his right hand side. The 4 spots are arranged in a zig zag like pattern and there is a back to front question mark next to his right eye. That afternoon I raced to the area that he was left in, hoping to find him on the kill. Sure enough, there he was, a young male leopard, but I didn’t recognise him. This was a much larger leopard than I had seen a year ago, surely he couldn’t have grown this much?
I took out my camera and zoomed in on each side of his face and there they were, the 4 spots in a zig zag pattern and the back to front question mark. I was over the moon! My favourite leopard has returned. I can only assume that he has been spending his time on Malamala, but he seems to have been spending more and more time on Londolozi. He seems to be eyeing out the same area as the Maxabene 3:2 young male and they even had a bit of a growling match in the area. The Dudley riverbank 3:3 young male also spends a lot of time on this part of Londolozi, so I think we may be in for some interesting interactions as they all stake their claim over this prime piece of land. I may be slightly biased, as I would love to spend more time photographing this beautiful animal.
Even if we don’t see him again, the once was enough. I was elated to see just what he has turned into and how well he is doing. I will, however, be watching this space very carefully, because if he does manage to hang onto this section of property, he could well end up mating with the Tamboti female and a better set of photographic genes I think you would battle to find.
Written and photographed by James Crookes