Tracking is an art form that few people have managed to master in their lifetimes. Elmon Mhlongo, is one of those exceptional men who have been able to tap into and understand its intricacies and secrets and has been doing just that professionally for 44 years. He may not wear the suit and tie that many people associate with a professional, but out there in his office on the trackers seat, Elmon is the expert in his field.
So on the day that Elmon looked up from the tracks on the road with a slightly befuddled expression and said that he wasn’t sure what the they were, I knew we had something good…
Scrambling out of my drivers seat, I wandered to the front of the vehicle and crouched next to the ‘Nduna’ (chief in Shangaan). From what I could tell, there was a giant drag mark across the road. It was easy to put the pieces together, a leopard had made a kill and dragged its quarry off towards the safety of the Manyaleti River to finish it off, right? Hmm, Elmon pondered next to me. It was apparently not that simple. There were no leopard tracks on either side of the drag mark. Was this a snake? It was not a typical snake track though? We weren’t sure. The only thing to do was to leave our guests in the safety of the vehicle and investigate.
A few hundred meters off the road, and still on the tracks, we came across a log that the ‘thing’ had moved over. If it were a leopard’s kill, normally small clumps of hair would still be attached to the log, where the prey’s body has been clumsily pulled over its uneven surface. We bent down and inspected closely. Nothing.
The follow soon became difficult and the summer grass long but Elmon stayed on the tracks. Slow and methodical, ever the CSI expert. Just as we reached the banks of the Manyaleti’s dry riverbed, we saw the tracks slip over its edge and inched forward to look over the bank. There clearly in the sand were the tracks of male leopard visible below us. So strange! How had we not seen his tracks on the road, along with the strange drag mark? There had to be something more to this.
Hopping down into the river, we rounded a corner and were surprised by the rather horrifying sight. There against the bank lay a fully excavated 4,5m long python carcass, with its head detached lying 20m away from the body and the tail missing. It finally made sense.
This python was huge. Part of its body was missing so it’s hard to say how long it was in total but judging by the sheer size of its head, it was a very old adult. This was incredibly fascinating but also a little sad and it seemed a rather terrible way to go. Having said this though, the battle between these two creatures would not have been one-sided because a huge python like this would have fought back just as hard. Even in its state, holding that carcass, you could feel the strength of its muscles and the weight of its body, despite the leopard having eaten all the fatty insides. And as with all things in nature, pythons are not faultless either. These snakes have also been known to eat leopard cubs and Elmon and John Varty actually filmed this very thing here on Londolozi at a place we now call Python Rock. Follow the link to watch the amazing footage and to see the strange behaviour of the female leopard once she has fought her cub back from the snake.
“In my whole career this is the only time I ever saw a snake eat a cub”, Elmon told me. “But I have seen leopards kill pythons a few times, just never as big as the one we found the other day. Sometimes the leopard eats the python and sometimes it just kills it and leaves it. It’s sad but maybe it is the leopard getting revenge for something like what we saw at Python Rock many years ago”.
So don’t be deceived. Out here there are many secrets to be had and even the people with decades of experience are consistently surprised. The quiet man perched on the vehicle’s bonnet is an encyclopaedia of bush knowledge. Engage him and he will teach you a thing or two about how the world around you works and out on game drive, the bush may just produce something you could never ever could have anticipated.
Written by: Amy Attenborough