Leopards come and go. Fact. They are born, get older and eventually die. The majority don’t even make it through their first year. Excuse this seemingly callous outlook, but it is a reality that every guide in a leopard-rich area such as Londolozi must face eventually, especially if he or she is going to be working in the bush for a number of years.
When I arrived here, the legend of the Sunset Bend and 3:4 females was strong, as both had died within the previous year or two. The Mother leopard’s genes still flow strongly through her descendants, and leopard viewing is as good as it has ever been.
Leopards, like great artists I have come to realise, are often unappreciated in their own time. Don’t get me wrong here, I am in no way taking away from any sighting of a leopard or any of the current individuals we see around Londolozi, be they in a tree in the golden sunlight or deep in the long grass with barely a tail-tip visible. Every time I see a leopard, I marvel at its beauty and count myself incredibly fortunate to spend even a few minutes in its presence. What I am surmising on is the possible legendary status we will ascribe to such leopards as the Vomba and Nottens females when they are gone, or the Camp Pan or Marthly males. I think it is easier for female leopards to fall into legend, as they generally enjoy longer lives than the males, and often set up territory near their mothers; as such we are sometimes able to view them from birth to death, 16 or 17 years later if they have a good run.
These musings arose the other day when viewing the Vomba female and her latest cub in the Bushbuck Drainage, very close to camp. When asking the Londolozi rangers their views on the Vomba female, you might get a wide variety of responses. Some might marvel at her gorgeous dark coat colour and emerald eyes. Others might talk about her prowess as a hunter, leaving remains of impalas and duikers dotted throughout her territory for us to find. Almost all the rangers, however, will vouch for the fact that she is a royal pain to try and track!
Going track-for-track after the Vomba female is often a lesson in humility. Just when you think you are on fresh tracks and you are getting close, the bark of a bushbuck tells you that she has retreated to one of the innumerable thickets or drainage lines to which vehicle access is impossible. Around lunchtime that same day, when driving to the airstrip to pick up guests, she will stroll out in front of you when looking for leopards is the last thing on your mind. Frustrating, to say the least!
Her territory lies in the heart of Londolozi, the heart of the Sabi Sand, and therefore the very heart of one of the most intensely contested areas of leopard real-estate in the world. A 4 or 5 kilometre stretch of Sand River frontage teeming with game, cut by deep drainage lines and burgeoning with life, her territory is about as perfect as it gets.
And now, approaching her 16th birthday (December of this year), she is on the brink of successfully raising her 5th cub to independence.
It has not been an easy road for her. Believed to have given birth to at least 14 cubs during her lifetime (a number of litters were lost or never seen), to raise 5 to independence is nevertheless a wonderful achievement, made even more special by the fact that some of those offspring are now raising cubs of their own (Mashaba female and Tutlwa female).
How long can she last though?
The oldest territorial female on Londolozi is currently the Nottens female (believed to be turning 18 this year). In the wild, this is about as old as a female leopard is expected to live for. She is still looking healthy though, and sightings of her are still relatively frequent.
If 18 years is the benchmark, does the Vomba female still have 2 good years to go? And are we currently viewing a leopardess who will achieve legendary status after her passing? I think so. The frustrating nature of tracking her aside, all rangers and trackers here have a soft spot for the Vomba female. We have all been led on many a wild goose chase by her, but she will still always reward us with an amazing sighting, just when we least expect it.
The Mashaba and Tutlwa females are waiting in the wings to take over territory from their mother when it becomes available, but I have a strong suspicion that the Vomba female is going to keep them waiting for a good while longer…
Written and Photographed by James Tyrrell