Having nearly stepped on this leopard twice during my time at Londolozi, and being incredibly fortunate to come away with a whole skin both times (see A Freebie and Don’t Look a Leopard in the Eye), the Tutlwa female occupies a unique place in my psyche. For many years she was my absolute favourite leopard on Londolozi, but having turned my knees to jelly on two occasions, I find it hard to reconcile the old admiration of her beauty with the heart palpitations every time I see her now.
However wary I may be of her, I am very concerned about the lack of sightings of this rather enigmatic female over the last while.
A few weeks ago, rangers were sitting with the Tsalala pride in the Sand River, when the lionesses suddenly got up and began sniffing around a pile of debris next to some large granite boulders. One of the lionesses began scrabbling around in the branches, and without warning, chaos erupted as the unmistakeable form of a very angry female leopard was seen swatting out left and right at the lioness who was by now attempting to claw her way into the sticks. From his brief view, ranger Garrett Fitzpatrick recognized the Tutlwa female, who we suspected had been secreting cubs somewhere. It seems very likely that this was her den (she kept a single cub there last year) which had now been sniffed out by the lions.
Fortunately the lions moved off without having managed to grab the leopard from the debris pile, and the Tutlwa female remained hidden from view.
Since then, there have only been one or two confirmed sightings of her, and other females have been seen moving through and scent-marking the areas in which she usually patrols. Both the Nanga and Mashaba females have been hunting on what was traditionally viewed as Tutlwa female territory, and although it is too soon to confirm, because she is not a regularly viewed leopard, it is possible that the Tutlwa female may have succumbed to injuries sustained in the encounter with the lions.
These are certainly not groundless fears of ours, as the 5:5 male met his fate under the teeth and claws of the same pride not too long ago, and it is certainly possible the Tutlwa female could have been the next.
Sometimes we will go for over a month without viewing her, but is the sudden advent of rival females in her territory which is making us worry.
Most likely we are worrying over nothing, and I hope that within a month I will be able to report that she is alive and well.
Until then, we will continue to follow tracks along the river, and respond to every call of a bushbuck, in the hope that the Tutlwa female is still alive and well…