We ran a post recently on the Ndzanzeni female and our belief that she is denning a litter somewhere in the south-eastern parts of Londolozi.
After the successful track-and-find of the rarely seen Nhlanguleni female’s den-site, we were wildly optimistic that we could repeat the process with a different leopard, and so at 5am one morning about a week ago, Amy Attenborough, Innocent Ngwenya and I headed down into the densely thicketed areas near the Tugwaan drainage, determined on finding another set of cubs, this time the Ndzanzeni female’s.
Now over the previous two weeks, more regular sightings of this leopard had given us a bit more insight into her movements, and we felt that she was concentrating her activity in the area just west of the Sand River, not far from its confluence with the Tugwaan drainage. We decided to start in the drainage itself to try and find her tracks, and work outwards from there.
Finding footprints in a sandy riverbed can be a relatively simple procedure, as leopards walking there will generally stick to the vehicle tracks; the slightly more compacted sand presents an easier surface to walk on. Leopards have a very distinctive gait, and even a relatively inexperienced tracker can identify the tracks of a leopard just from their spacing, without even looking at the individual tracks themselves.
So when Innocent suddenly raised his hand from where he was sitting on the tracker’s seat, I was pretty confident he had found something.
“Hmmm… her tracks are here, mfo (friend)“, he confirmed.
Now the usual protocol as a ranger when a tracker tells you to stop is to immediately look around in case whatever animal has left its tracks is still in the immediate vicinity. So it was only a few seconds after Innocent called the halt that we spotted the fur and bones of a partially consumed nyala carcass hanging from a Weeping Boer Bean tree. The tree was growing out of the steep bank of the Tugwaan at a fantastic angle, and flooding had exposed a dense tangle of huge roots at its base. It was in these roots that we spotted the prostrate form of the Ndzanzeni female. It was not yet 6am, and we had completed the first part of our mission.
Presuming the female’s cubs were probably less than 2 months old, we were confident she was regularly going back to the den to nurse them, as they were still too young to be taken to a kill, and we immediately had our plan for the day. We were going to sit with the female and wait for however long it took until she led us back to the den. Simple.
Not so simple.
We waited for a couple of hours but soon realised we were going to have to do things properly if we were going to spend the whole day out there. Rangers Greg Pingo and Dan Buys volunteered to hold the fort while the rest of us quickly headed back to camp, and after we had grabbed a bite to eat and stocked up on supplies (plenty of sunscreen, litres of water and a coolerbox filled with ice), Amy and I headed back down to where the leopard was still sleeping.
And so began a loooooong day. Long and hot.
We were in a bit of a tricky area; very thick and right up against the bank of the Tugwaan. Greg stayed in one Land Rover down in the riverbed while Amy and I stayed up top; if the leopard moved, it would be almost impossible to get up or down quickly enough to stick with her in the undergrowth, so we had to have two vehicles on site, one for either direction she might choose to go.
But she had no intention of going anywhere. Morning dragged on into midday as the sun rose to its zenith, and the temperature soared. We were trying to squeeze ourselves into the sparse shade of a leadwood tree, and if it hadn’t been for the ice-cold water we had with us I’m sure somebody would have mutinied. And the leopard continued to snooze.
After 12 hours out there, with the afternoon game drives well under way and the sun moving towards the horizon, the temperature began dropping and the Ndzanzeni female finally began showing signs of movement. A bit of grooming and one or two yawns indicated that she was starting to get active and she eventually climbed up to the nyala carcass and began to feed. At least she was moving now.
There wasn’t too much meat left, and we were hopeful she’d finish whatever remained and head straight back to the den, wherever it was.
No such luck.
She did indeed finish off the carcass, but then decided to lead us on a wild goose chase around her territory. Amy and I doggedly stuck with her as she moved through some horrifically thick bush, and we were treated to some incredible leopard viewing, but try to understand that we weren’t in the mood for anything but small cubs, after 13 hours of baking out there, without lunch and yet to have dinner. We were tired, hungry, sunburnt, probably slightly dehydrated, irritable, and the dream we had had at 6am of being led to some tiny cubs was going up in smoke as the female looked like doing everything but going back to her den! As night fell she scent-marked prolifically while patrolling some of her favourite haunts, she got treed by a hyena and had a face-off with a honey badger as it emerged from its burrow. But her movements didn’t seem to indicate that she was going back to a den.
Finally, at 8pm, after 14 hours of sitting and waiting, we decided to call it quits. The leopard was sleeping close to some impala, and we didn’t want to impact any hunting she might have wanted to do.
Silently fuming at having invested so much time with her for scant reward, we made the long drive back to camp in stony silence.
After a few bites of dinner and a couple of beers we were laughing again though. More at ourselves than anything else. Just when you think you are sitting on a winning lottery ticket out here, the bush will quickly give you a reality check. Things move at their own pace and there is precious little in the animal kingdom that will outlast a leopard in the waiting game. The Ndzaneni female outlasted us that day, but we’re sure she did return to the den that night to feed her cubs.
We’re just have to keep the cooler-box well stocked for the next time…