Graeme Marais was a ranger at Londolozi from 2009-2011, and being one of the best birders the reserve has ever cultivated, he is often brought in to help run the birding component of the ranger training courses.
I stayed at his house in Johannesburg recently, and while browsing along his bookshelf I noticed a large hardback photo-book of the kind printed these days by camera shops, in which you submit your photos digitally and they print them out in a book format which you design.
It was the Londolozi Leopard ID kit from late 2010, and while browsing through it I couldn’t believe the complete turnover that Londolozi has undergone in the last six years.
There were no leopards in that book that we currently view under the same names, and a significant portion of the dominant leopards at the time now occupy the “Recently Deceased” section in the current ID kit.
I suppose I shouldn’t have been all that surprised, as six years is a fair amount of time in a wild animal population, particularly leopards. It has just been such a gradual population metamorphosis that I barely noticed it was happening. It’s only when one stops to think that you realize which individuals have come and gone.
Let’s review a few…
In that early ID kit, the Marthly male was a rarely seen individual only seldom encountered in the far north-west reaches of Londolozi. The Camp Pan male dominated a huge area from south of the Maxabene riverbed to the Manyelethi, a similar area to that patrolled by the 4:4 male at the moment. The Marthly male would end up pressurizing the Camp Pan male away from his Sand River haunts and into semi-obscurity in the deep south, himself fathering multiple cubs in the process. The Piva male, currently dominant on east-central Londolozi, was not even born yet!
Both the Camp Pan and Marthly males are gone now, consigned to memory and the pages of photobooks, while the 4:4, Piva and Inyathini males patrol the self-same game paths that their predecessors wandered down.
On the female front the Tutlwa female was only recently independent and not territorial yet, and was still named the Vomba young female accordingly. The Mashaba female was still the 3:3 female cub of the Vomba female, and of course the Vomba female herself was still alive. The Maxabene female was alive and well and was just in the process of pushing her two sons, the Maxabene 3:2 (subsequently Tu-Tones) and 3:3 (currently Makhotini) males into independence. At less than two years of age they already outweighed their diminutive mother by a substantial margin, and she must have had a hard time keeping them well fed.
In the north the Nanga female was just the tiny 3:3 female cub of the Nyelethi female, a leopard who I sadly never saw, despite starting my own journey at Londolozi while she was still alive. Unusually among leopards, that litter of three that the Nanga female came from all made it to independence, a rare occurrence in an area in which the cub mortality is so high.
These are just a few of the names that have changed or gone. The Manyelethi and Mhangeni males as well as the Ravenscourt, Dudley Riverbank and Notten’s females are a couple more of the old guard that no longer pad silently down the dusty tracks of the African bush.
And just as I was astounded by how completely different the leopard ID kit of 2010 was to the one of today, so was Graeme surprised to realize that he recognised so few of the leopard names that today’s rangers track and view on a daily basis. Whereas Graeme would have called in the name of the Camp Pan male on the radio many times over, the Inyathini male is a totally foreign name to him. His photographs from his time at Londolozi are from a different era, and different faces will stare back at him from a computer screen or the pages of a book.
It is not sad, it is not a morbid recounting of those animals come and gone, it is simply the change that is the only real constant in the bush. The individual animals may come and go, but as iconic as each one might have been, it is the legacy they leave behind, and the continuation of their species in this remarkable wilderness area that is truly special.