I type this without knowing if the Camp Pan male leopard is alive or dead.
We are incredibly lucky at Londolozi, in that the leopards we see are generally used to vehicles, allowing us unrivalled viewing opportunities. Other leopards in Africa, however, and indeed elsewhere in the world, are far more reclusive. Ghostly spectres that flit across the headlights, leaving tracks in the sand and the occasional tuft of fur caught on a branch as the only memory of their passing.
Old leopards on Londolozi assume such status. Faded shadows of their former selves, their paling fur and propensity for not revealing more of their presence than is absolutely necessary sees them taking on more and more of a mystical quality. The occasional glimpse of these individuals as they move into the twilight of their lives simply adds to their legend. Pushed out of their former territories by younger, stronger rivals, we see them less and less often as they lead a nomadic existence, until one day, they are just… gone.
Such is the Camp Pan male.
The last evidence I saw of his presence on Londolozi was a few weeks ago in the form of an unmistakeable set of enormous paw prints. We followed the tracks the whole way across the property on the southern bank of the Sand River, only to see them disappear over our eastern boundary. The older trackers here know for sure when the Camp Pan male has passed by. An injury to his toe on one of his front feet leaves a distinctive scuff mark in the track, but that aside, no other leopard I have ever seen has such big paw prints. I can remember two occasions from my early days here when I was very new to tracking on which I mistook tracks of this leopard to be those of a lioness!
He was renowned for his incredibly long patrols, and many was the day when we were following his tracks, believing ourselves to be close behind him, before another ranger radioed in that they had just found him 3 km away!
It saddens me to think I may never see him again, yet I still feel a deep sense of privilege that I was able to view him for a large portion of his remarkable life. Seldom has a male leopard been such a dominant force in this, one of the densest leopard populations in the world.
Born in late 2000 to the Tavangumi female, he followed a similar trajectory to most other young male leopards, becoming independent at around two years of age and spending most of his early independence operating in an area controlled by his father, believed to be the Wallingford male. I say “believed to be” as paternity in leopards is often unclear, owing to the fact that females will often mate with multiple males so as to solicit future protection for their cubs.
As the Camp Pan male grew, he began pushing eastwards onto Londolozi, establishing himself almost overnight as the dominant male in 2007. For the next six years he reigned supreme, siring multiple litters with numerous females. Although the first chinks in his armour began appearing in 2011 as he was placed under enormous pressure by the Dudley Riverbank 5:5 male, he managed to ward off that challenge while slowly ceding territory to the Marthly male pressing in from the North.
Have a look at the following video showing the Camp Pan male battling the Dudley Riverbank 5:5 male:
The Marthly male was destined to take over the prized river territory however, forcing the Camp Pan male further south, where he continued to hold ground and mate with the females in the area, most notably the Tamboti female.
His downfall would eventually come in 2014 in the form of the younger and stronger Piva male, pushing in from the South and forcing the by-now aging Camp Pan male to relinquish his hold on the territory. An old male leopard, once forced out of his territory, usually reverts back to a nomadic existence, and slowly heads towards oblivion.
That shall never happen with the Camp Pan male however. He shall not be forgotten. His legacy and his genes lives on through the Makhotini male and the Mashaba and Tutlwa females, and indeed their offspring.
I do not know if I will ever see him again or indeed if he is still alive.
Although it is unlikely because he no longer holds territory, when I hear a leopard calling on the still morning air these days, I like to imagine it is the Camp Pan male, padding determinedly down the dusty tracks of Londolozi, heading out on one final patrol.
Written and Photographed by James Tyrrell, Londolozi Photographer