I remember clearly my first morning drive on Londolozi. It was grey and drizzly, and Head Ranger Chris Goodman was taking me and fellow trainee Dan Buys out to show us a bit of the property. Not far from camp we bumped into two hyenas moving quickly along the road just south of the Sand River, and recognising the intent in their gait, we followed. Within minutes they had skidded to a halt beneath a Bushveld Saffron tree (Elaeodendron transvaalensis) in which a female leopard with a dark gold coat had hoisted a freshly killed impala lamb. The hyenas were forced to watch impotently while the leopardess finished off her kill before making a languid descent and disappearing into a nearby thicket.
The leopard, my first on Londolozi, was one I would see many times over the next couple of years as she entered the twilight of her life, and her golden coat was instantly recognisable to every ranger and tracker here. She was the Vomba female.
Nostalgic words and expressions of remembrance can often seem trite when reminiscing over leopards or lions that have passed on, but the Vomba female is the only leopard I truly feel a pang for when I think back to sightings of her. The first leopard I saw at a place defined by leopards, and the female who had the Londolozi camps firmly in the centre of her territory, using them rather than avoiding them, was always going to make some kind of impression on me.
It wasn’t only my first sighting as a trainee ranger that involved her, but my first official task as well. I had been asked to remove the foetid carcass of a bushbuck that she had hoisted into the Sausage tree next to Granite Camp deck. The smell made dining on deck simply unbearable, so I was duly dispatched with a pool net and a “Good luck!” from the senior rangers. The pouring rain made the bark like an ice-rink, and incessantly buzzing flies swarmed all over me while I gagged from the wafting aroma of decaying antelope. The expectation of a snarling leopard launching out of the bushes as my skinny legs made the climb didn’t add to the appeal of the job, but it was done in the end, although it did place a dent in any sort of affection I may have felt for the leopard at that point.
Her success rate in hunts was high, I’m sure owing in part to the proliferation of prey species in her territory and surplus cover provided by the riparian vegetation.
She was also not averse to taking some risks, as the following clip will show:
Her presence around the camp was almost a constant. If it wasn’t her tracks in the car park at dawn, it would be the midday bark of a bushbuck in the Sand River, or the shrill summer’s whistling of a Wahlberg’s eagle that announced her presence. I remember clearly a set of guests that had arrived from Australia, whose declaration on the way down from the airstrip was that all they needed to see was a leopard, and they’d be happy. “Ok”, I said, as I turned my head back towards the road, “…there’s one!”, as the Vomba female casually sauntered out in front of us.
I wrote a blog in May of 2013 that examined the Vomba female’s presence at Londolozi, and the future for her. When discussing possible inheritors of her territory, my prediction that “she may keep them waiting for a good while longer” was sadly mistimed, as within three months she would be gone.
Death is usually a private affair for leopards; the darkness of night is most often the shroud under which their life ends. As a leopard ages, its reaction times get slower. Muscles aren’t quite as powerful as they once were, ears detect a fraction less of the sounds they once did, and in a place where half a second can mean the difference between life and death, it is often this ageing that takes leopards to their final resting place. With the Vomba female’s territory covering a good few kilometres of the Sand River, and the Tsalala Pride being a constant threat in this area, ranger Tom Imrie theorises that it may well have been the lions that got her in the end. They haunted the same reedbeds and palm thickets, and an unwary leopard may well have stumbled into their clutches. We will never know for sure. I hope for her sake that the end was swift.
The Mashaba, Tutlwa and Nhlanguleni females, as well as the Mashaba Young female, are all in the Vomba female’s direct line of descendants. With these four leopardesses currently occupying prime territories along the Sand River, it seems the true definition of success in nature – to reproduce yourself and ideally have reproductively viable offspring – can be applied most emphatically to the Vomba female, a true legend among the Londolozi leopards.
Written by James Tyrrell, Londolozi Ranger