I’ve not been going on safari long. Four short years, almost to the day. They’ve been pretty busy years, granted, but it’s not a long time, measured against the span of a life. It’s been an incredible learning experience – almost another kind of childhood and growing up, so far from all that is familiar, known and safe. Wondrous and terrifying in equal part. There have been companions along the way, who have helped me learn, and grown and journeyed with me. Some of them have been human; some have not.
There are many special moments with leopards. Your first one, ever. Your first cub. Your first mating, first interaction, first sighting of an unknown cat. All precious and amazing in their own right. Then, there’s the first leopard you get to know, the one you begin to spend more and more time with, so that their individual character shines through. Finally, for me at least, there’s the leopard you watch grow from fuzzy cub-hood to become the sleek, glorious, shining perfection of nature that is her birthright – the one you see who overcomes all the odds and makes it to independence, claims a territory and begins the endless cycle all over again.
For me, that leopard is the Tamboti Young Female of Londolozi. My first sighting of her was in May 2013. I was just learning to look beyond the surface of the safari experience – beginning to be able to see the deep rhythms of nature and the wild that connect us to it. She was a tiny cub with the whole world to explore. She tumbled into the clearing in front of us with her sibling and her mum, squeaking and growling in a play-fight, then went on to explore the vehicle with the utmost curiosity – we had brought her a jungle gym; a climbing frame; something new to be investigated. We sat, carefully, so as not to scare either cubs or mother. The Tamboti Young Female (although she wouldn’t get her name until much later) came closer and closer. And closer. She found a log running parallel to the vehicle, and hopped up on it. She marched towards us, intent on exploration. In the background, her mother watched, warily. We forgot to breathe, partly entranced by the experience, partly terrified that we might somehow seem to be harming the cub, and be treated as a threat (note to observers: you don’t want a mother leopard deciding you are a threat to her cubs. Ever.) There was a moment’s frozen pause where everything hung in the balance. One more step and she would be on the bonnet of the vehicle. Her paw lifted. She wobbled, and hesitated just a moment too long. There was an undignified squeak, and she fell off the log.
Phew. Sort of. What a pity. Sort of. Plus side – we’re less likely to be eaten by a protective parent. Minus – how cool would it have been if she’d taken another couple of steps? Plus – this is definitely the ethical result; wild animals should not, ideally, come to view safari vehicles as toys. Minus (and I challenge anyone who lives and works with wildlife to honestly say they feel differently about this) – there is something beyond special in being so close to an animal; in being allowed, for a time, to become part of their world.
So, that was our first meeting. Afterwards, I had to sit alone for a while, watching the peace of moving water and listening to the life of the bush around me, as the emotions slowly sank and calmed from the peak of the experience.
It’s a tricky thing, getting attached to a leopard cub. Most of them don’t make it to adulthood, so you prepare yourself. That, too, is part of the inevitable pattern of the bush, and part of growing – and growing up – in your understanding of it. By the time I returned to Londolozi in January of 2014, I’d been round East Africa, seen the migration in the Serengeti and marvelled at the wonder that is the Ngorongoro Crater. I came back to the familiar ground of the Sabi Sands – the first place I visited in the bush, and so always ‘home’ – with a new appreciation for it. There were a lot of things and places I wanted to see, and top of the list was ‘our’ young cub. If she’d made it. So when we arrived, we asked. Were Tamboti’s cubs still alive…? And we were told, only one. One lived, one died. ‘We don’t know which one you saw. You’ll have to see if you can find Tamboti and the cub, to ensure which one you saw’ *. So we set out to look. Two days into the trip, we found them. Photos were taken. Spot patterns were anxiously compared (see the footnote for explanation of how individual leopards are indentified). Was it her? Really? We think so…. Better get a second opinion. Pictures were taken back to the lodge and passed around. A consensus formed; yes, it’s her. She’s made it! What a joy and privilege, to sit with this sleek, fit young leopard and know that she was the fuzzy cub who nearly climbed on our car.
Three months later, we saw her again, playing with her mother, preparing for independence and – incredibly – walking down the road with both her mother and the Gowrie male, who is presumed to be her father. Then again, four months after that, beginning to look like an adult cat, now. Then, a long gap, over a year. I came back to the bush – to Londolozi in particular – from a very difficult year, sorely in need of the peace offered by one of my favourite places on earth, and of the connectedness to nature I’d been missing for so long. At the back of my mind, I was also hoping for a reunion with my favourite young female leopard. I didn’t want to bring the hope any closer than that – she might not have made it; she might have survived but claimed a territory elsewhere.
She was there. Adult, independent, had even been seen breeding, despite still theoretically being a little young for that. I breathed a sigh of relief; we’d both made it. Knowing that was enough, even if we didn’t get to see her. I should have known better; on a morning of crystalline beauty, that had started with mist blanketing the bush and cleared to a sky the colour of washed sapphire, she gave us a show I’ll never forget. Threatened by the Piva male (also one of my favourite cats), she knocked him out of the tree she’d chosen for shelter, sent him plummeting to the ground (happily uninjured) and stood, poised and graceful on a branch, watching him walk away.
Nothing she is or does is of my making. She is exactly herself, driven by her instincts and her learning. Whatever parallels my human mind might draw between our growing and experience, hers and mine, I have no right at all to pride in her achievements.
I was so very proud of her.
* For the curious, individual leopards can be identified by the pattern of spots they carry on the triangle of fur between their whiskers and their nose. Tamboti Young Female happens to have a particularly distinctive pattern; her spots are in a funky pattern on a couple of levels, rather than the more usual straight line.
Written and Photographed by Rebecca Green, Londolozi Guest Writer