Due to the perfect habitat and many years of hard work and habituation, we are lucky enough to have been viewing incredible leopard behaviour on Londolozi since the 1970’s. As a consequence of these leopards becoming relaxed, we have been able to, over time, follow the various lineages and document the lives of individual leopards. This has provided us with an amazing amount of information.
As a result, we have built up an incredibly loyal base of guests who return time and time again, to spend hours viewing and photographing these beautiful animals. One such couple is Jos and Yvette Van Bommel, who have been returning to us since 2002. Jos and Yvette take a particular interest in leopards and pride themselves in being able to distinguish various leopards due to their spot patterning. How exactly does this work?
Although leopards can be identified a number of different ways, the most commonly accepted and easiest way is through the use of the unique formation of spot patterns on their faces. These are the spots above the upper line of whiskers and we look first at the right side of the leopards face before moving to the left side.
During Jos and Yvette’s last trip to Londolozi, myself and tracker Elmon Mhlongo were doing our very best to find them some new leopards that they had never seen before. We set out to find the newly-established Piva male, who had moved into Londolozi from south of our property. Thankfully, due primarily to Elmon’s almost supernatural talents as a tracker, we we were successful, thereby adding another name to the long list of leopards viewed here by the Van Bommels.
After spending a wonderful morning with the Piva male and capturing some beautiful photographs, we began to chat about this leopard’s lineage and where his mother and father had come from. Immediately I could see Yvette’s thoughts start to turn over. Based on the Piva male’s age, we became very excited, as Yvette believed they had viewed this male leopard as a cub with his mother many years before, on one of our neighbouring properties.
On our return to the lodge, the laptop was quickly whipped out and we began to scour through years of sightings to see if Yvette was right. Upon clicking on the first photo, there in front of us was the Piva male’s unmistakable face, just five years younger.
Despite having always enjoyed being able to identify leopards and following their ever-changing movements, I had never fully appreciated just how important an understanding of these lineages and patterns could be. Although these animals would continue to do what they do and move as they move without us understanding the intricacies of their behaviour, being even slightly more aware of their histories definitely deepens the relationship or at the least the sense of kinship that we and our guests have with them. Without being able to identify and distinguish them from one another, we would never know the intimate details of their stories or how it is that they all fit together.
As the Van Bommels arrive today for their second trip this year, I am sure one of the first leopards we will look for will be the Piva male. Having documented him just a few months ago, our guests will be able to see what new stories his scars will be able to tell us, what his location will say about his ever-shifting territory and what his physique will say about his life over the last few months.
So next time you have a look at the spot patterns on a leopard’s face, try not to think of it so much as a random line of spots. Instead, think of it as the gateway to a story about the animal’s life.
Written by Amy Attenborough, Londolozi Ranger
Photographed by Amy Attenborough and Jos Van Bommel, Londolozi Guest