It is rather embarrassing when you utter an ignominious squeal in front of your guests. Luckily this has only happened to me once, and it was more than two years ago, so I hope it won’t happen again. Okay ‘squeal’ is probably not the right word. I think ‘wild yelp of terror’ might describe it a bit more accurately. Ask tracker Eckson Sibuyi, who was with me at the time, about the incident, and he’ll explode into a belly laugh at the memory. In good humour, but most certainly at my expense.
It involves my favourite leopard on Londolozi, the Tutlwa female. She has been somewhat of an enigma this year as she is currently raising two cubs, and I have only seen her on two occasions! Spending much of her time in and around the Sand River to the west of camp (where vehicle access is somewhat difficult), she can be a hard leopard to find.
Anyway, back to the story.
It was early one morning in late November 2011. We were driving slowly along the riverbank near Finfoot crossing, quite close to camp, when the bark of a bushbuck sounded from the thicket line across the river. Knowing that bushbuck will alarm at leopards, we immediately crossed the river to investigate, and only a few hundred metres downstream a male bushbuck burst out of the undergrowth and disappeared into a drainage line, looking flustered. On high alert now, all senses tuned in, we drove slowly on until Eckson’s right hand went up on the bonnet, signalling me to stop. Climbing out to see what he had found, my heart started beating faster as my eye lit on the distinctive scrape across the road where a leopard had dragged a kill.
The tracks alongside the drag-mark indicated a female leopard, sending my pulse racing even faster, as the territorial female in the area was the Tutlwa female, and we knew she was raising two little cubs at the time, only one of which I had ever seen, and that only briefly.
Not wanting to jump to conclusions, however, we left the guests in the vehicle and set about following the drag mark, moving very slowly through the thick riparian bush, our eyes scanning every scrap of cover in which a leopard might conceal a carcass.
Within 10 minutes we had found the kill; an impala lamb, hoisted in a tamboti tree, the blood still dripping from the puncture marks on it’s neck.
Nyala and tree squirrels alarming about 100m away in the bushes told of where the leopard was moving, and further served to confirm our suspicions that it was in fact the Tutlwa female, and she was going to fetch her cubs to bring them to the kill.
Now, I hadn’t been a guide for very long at the time, and was relatively inexperienced when it came to this type of sighting. Totally clueless in fact. Our best chance to see the (very unrelaxed) cubs would have been to sit quietly and wait. The problem was we had no idea where they were being kept, and it might have been a long wait for the mother to bring them to the meat. Ranger Helen Young had meanwhile found the Tsalala Pride not too far away, so I decided to head to her sighting and return later to where the impala lamb hung from the tree.
We did this, but unfortunately, since the carcass had been hung in a very thick area crisscrossed by many drainage lines, vehicle access was tricky, and we made quite a bit of noise driving in. To our surprise, the kill was gone. A quick scan revealed it lying at the bottom of one of the drainage lines (we were parked up on the bank), and it looked to be partially consumed.
With no view of the mother or her cubs, and unsure as to whether she had in fact fetched them at all, Eckson and I decided to have a cast around to see if we could find a track telling us which way she or they had gone.
My heart was in my mouth as we descended the bank. Knowing that a predator with a kill or a predator with cubs can be a very dangerous animal to approach on foot, and we were now potentially facing both, it was in retrospect quite a stupid thing going down there at all.
Nevertheless, down we went.
A single track pointed up the opposite bank and we tentatively (read; very slowly) headed in that direction. I may point at out that at this point I was in no way happy about not being in the vehicle. My couch back home in Cape Town also seemed a far more preferable option than on foot and most likely near a mother leopard who was probably angry at being disturbed.
Eckson didn’t see any further tracks, so just after we had passed a dense but small thicket, he decide to turn around and check a little further down the drainage. Moving just as slowly as before, we headed back down the bank on the other side of the thicket, feeling slightly less nervous as we were essentially now covering ground we had covered before…
Speak to any experienced trackers out here, and they will tell you that if you do happen to spot a leopard while on foot, and it is close to you, never look it in the eye. The leopard relies so heavily on its camouflage, it will lie dead still until the absolute last second, hoping you will not see it and simply pass it by. Believe me, this happens. If you do see it and look it in the eye, it knows it’s cover has been blown and has to react. The so-called “Flight or Fight” response. You just have to pray it chooses the “flight”!
That is what you have to take into account if you see the leopard. In our case, we didn’t see her, but pretty much stepped on her tail!
A sudden explosion at our feet, a guttural roar and a crashing of bushes down into the drainage line showed where she had burst from cover and fled headlong from these two human intruders. It happened in half a heartbeat and she was gone. I didn’t even catch a glimpse of a spot! We had probably been within a metre of her before she decided she was about to be tripped over, and being the wonderful, wonderful leopard she is, chose the “flight” response. What would have happened had she chosen Option B doesn’t bear thinking about.
I had bravely emitted a shrill squeal of terror as the leopard had launched out of her hiding place, causing Eckson to shake in uncontrollable laughter once he had made sure she had moved off (he hadn’t even flinched!). The guests, who had had a grandstand view from where the vehicle was parked on the opposite bank, were also struggling to contain their mirth. On the shakiest knees I had ever had, I gingerly made my way back to the Land Rover, my ego very much deflated, and mumbled something about going for a cup of coffee before starting the engine and driving off, leaving the leopard(s) to return to their kill in peace.
I had to make all the coffees that morning, as Eckson was still laughing way to hard to be able to be of any help!
Written and Photographed by James Tyrrell