Despite having passed away over 15 years ago, there remains on Londolozi today, the lingering story of a legendary leopard. She was named the Tugwaan female and it seems her memory has done anything but fade. If you speak her name, to this very day, rangers and trackers who knew her will still quiver a little, give a wry smile and sprout fresh grey hairs from their heads. She is regarded as the most unpredictable leopard we’ve viewed in the last four decades.
As such, the ranging and tracking team had a huge amount of respect for her. Chris Kane-Burman, now General Manager and previous ranger remembers how this female, despite being a bit of a tyrant during the day, would become completely relaxed at night. “It was almost as if she was a different animal, allowing vehicles to approach her without concern”. He adds that “she was certainly one we all were a bit terrified of and walking to track her was a whole different ball game.” In a way, she reminds me of the tales you hear of Big Black, an aggressive lion that roamed Londolozi in its early days. Rangers and trackers would have to walk in teams, creating elaborate retraction techniques for when they located these cats so that they could get back to the vehicle in one piece. Rangers would even park the vehicle in such a way that if this leopard started running at you, you could switch on and try to make a hasty retreat. Chris says that there were a few occasions where he was flying out of a sighting with the Tugwaan female snapping around his front tyres and foot well.
Alex Van den Heever, who heads up the Tracker Academy with Renias Mhlongo, and also a ranger here during the reign of the Tugwaan female, says she was completely unpredictable. “Some days you would be viewing her and she’d be fast asleep just a few meters away from you and on other days she would see you coming from 100 meters away and would start charging”.
In fact, so renowned was her reputation that rangers made jokes about it. Tom Imrie used to refer to his wife Kate as the Tugwaan female if she looked like she might fly into a rage and Alex Van den Heever would say the same for Bron Varty if she was best avoided at a particular moment.
Sandros Sihlangu said that despite this rather unpredictable nature, she was a leopard that he really enjoyed and looked forward to spending time with. He believes that we have become used to viewing these cats close to the vehicle and this leopard was a reminder of how wild leopards are despite habituation. “She reminded you never to get complacent”. Sandros says she was also an incredibly good mother, with a high success rate. In fact, she raised a famous leopard called the 3:4 female, who would grow up to be incredibly relaxed and raise other well-known leopards such as the Nottens female and the Dudley Riverbank Female; a lineage we still view extensively today.
What is so fascinating for me is that even though she was born to the original Mother Leopard, an incredibly relaxed female, she never grew accustomed to being around humans on foot or in vehicles. A swift reminder of the wild nature of these creatures and the assurance that they do all in fact have vastly differing personalities. When we view a leopard at close quarters, it is because they are happy to have us there and not the other way round. A privilege we should always be clear about. Despite the fear she instilled though, it seems all have fond memories of her and Sandros claims that in his twenty plus years of guiding, “the Tugwaan female still stands out as the leopard he has respected the most.”