The north of the Londolozi property is my absolute favourite section, but it can be hit or miss when it comes to finding predators up there. Established sightings are one thing, but when you are going in blind, tracking through big blocks and along extensive drainage lines, it takes a lot of commitment and often most of a morning. Many are the times that trackers have opted to stay out on foot rather than return to the lodge defeated. I remember Andrea Sithole tracking the Mhangeni pride once, climbing off the car and grabbing a single 500mm bottle of water from ranger Mark Nisbet’s cooler-box to see him through the heat of the day. When it came time to for Mark and his guests to head out on afternoon drive, Andrea was still on foot in the searing heat, hours later, and it was only after Mark had been out for about an hour already that Andrea finally radioed in that he had found the pride, miles from where had started the track. Commitment, I tell you!
Leopards in particular are tough to track in the north, with many rocky areas providing difficult substrates across which to follow, and to be honest the majority of sightings in the north-western section around Ximpalapala koppie in particular either involve spotting the leopard in the flesh or being alerted by the alarm calls of herbivores to the presence of a predator.
For the better part of a decade, the inconsistency of leopard sightings in one of Londolozi’s most spectacular areas has been in large part also due to the skittish nature of the resident female leopard. For many years she was known only as “that skittish female who lives around Ximpalapala”, until a few photos were captured of her and she officially became known as the Ximpalapala female. Records of her life are sketchy at best, but we have strong reasons to believe she was actually a litter-mate of the Tugwaan male, born to the Short-Tailed female sometime around 2002. Her furtive nature was most likely a product of her environment, as her contact with vehicles would have been irregular at best in the area that she established herself, unlike her brother who moved into a core area on Londolozi and was tracked and viewed far more frequently.
Towards the end of 2015 and into early 2016, it appeared as though the female was beginning to relax slightly in the presence of Land Rovers, although we would still have to keep our distance in a sighting else she would slink into the nearest thicket in an attempt to melt away.
Around the middle of this year, however, we started to realise that we hadn’t recorded a sighting of the Ximpalapala female in quite some time. This in itself was no cause for concern, as we would sometimes go months without a confirmed sighting of her, but when other females were seen more and more frequently within her territory, scent marking and displaying territorial behaviour, we began to accept that something may have happened to her, and she had in all likelihood died.
Without trying to be too callous, the reality is that the deaths or disappearances of some animals diminish us less than others. The Ximpalapala female was so rarely seen that in all honesty, accepting her loss wasn’t and isn’t as distressing a process as it was for, say, the Vomba female or would be for the Mashaba female. I suppose in its own way the lack of sadness is in itself sad, as who are we to place value on one individual more than another?
Whatever the case, the disappearance of the Ximpalapala female has opened up the area for far more relaxed leopards to move in, and so far it has been a mother and daughter pair that have been filling the gap left behind. A two for the price of one, so to speak.
The Ingrid Dam female, also a relative unknown like her predecessor, as well as her daughter (born in 2014), have been the two females we have been viewing in the area, and although not many roads meander through that part of Londolozi, sightings have been consistent enough to make us believe that the two leopards are there to stay. Distinctly symmetrical 4:4 and 5:5 spot patterns on mother and daughter respectively allow for relatively easy identification.
Very little background information exists on either individual; the mother we believe originated to the west of Londolozi on the Otawa property, as would her daughter have done by default, and since no commercial lodges exist there, official data on her movements is restricted to a few records and images.
It is more than likely that given the area the two females are currently inhabiting, their stories will unfold as a few intermittent dramas that we are privileged to witness, and it will be up to us to try and fill in the blank spaces in between.