Andrea Sithole is one of the best trackers at Londolozi. He makes it all look annoyingly easy.
Great trackers don’t just have the ability to spot a track and see what it is. Nor does their skill end at being able to follow a line of prints, or at least connect the dots between prints that are scattered or widely spaced. The real skill is to be able to visualise exactly what happened, hours after the event, from nothing more than a few scrapes and indentations on the ground. Whilst some people will see a track as just that and nothing more, the best in the business will be able to reconstruct an entire scene in their mind’s eye.
So when a slight scrape across the road caused Andrea to lift his hand from the tracker’s seat, calling for a halt, only a short while ago, I was quite excited to hear what he had to say.
His initial look of excitement faded quite quickly though to one of unconcealed disappointment when what he had initially hoped were leopard tracks turned out to be those of a hyena.
“Look here”, he said, “this hyena was dragging a kill over the road. You can see the claw marks”. Now for the uninitiated this might sound foreign, but one of the simple differences between a leopard’s track an a hyena’s lies in the protractile nature of a leopard’s claws. A leopard walks with them sheathed, whilst a hyena has its claws out permanently, which is evidenced at the end of the toes in their tracks.
To explain briefly: Andrea had seen a line in the gravel where something had been dragged across the road, and as we drove past he had caught a brief glimpse of a predator’s track. Indicating for me to reverse, he climbed down to inspect the tracks more closely, and declared the drag mark to have been made by a hyena. Scrutinising the area a bit more closely, he pointed to another slight scuff, slightly off to the side of the drag mark.
“Female leopard”, he announced.
His theory was that a female leopard had killed something and then been robbed by the hyena. The hyena had dragged the kill away in an attempt to get it somewhere where it could feed at leisure, but the leopard had followed, probably hoping to try and steal some of the carcass back again.
He was 100% correct.
Following the tracks into the thicket, we were walking very quietly when Andrea clicked his fingers and pointed up into a nearby knobthorn tree. Following the direction that he was pointing, I spied the half eaten carcass of an impala ewe that he had seen. “Look here”, whispered Andrea, “here’s where the leopard was running with the kill.” Deep pug marks clearly indicated where she had been moving swiftly, and it was easy to imagine how she had snatched what remained of the carcass from the hyena and hightailed it for the safety of the tree. The hyena had most likely eaten its fill and moved off slightly, opening a small window of opportunity for the leopard to snatch back what was left of her meal. The tree she had hoisted in was itself proof of her having being under pressure; Knobthorn trees are not often used by leopards, as their thorns are sharp and their bark is flaky and will easily come off under a leopard’s claws, potentially causing it to fall back to the ground. But if you have a hyena on your tail, you have to take what you can get.
There was no sign of the leopard, but since we were in an area frequented by the Xidulu female, we figured that it may be her, and she may have gone to fetch her cubs to bring them to the kill. As we walked back to the vehicle, the sudden click of Andrea’s fingers froze me with one foot in the air, and again following where he was pointing, I caught a brief glimpse of the unmistakeable form of a leopard slinking away through the wet grass. “It’s definitely her,” was Andrea’s confident pronouncement.
We got back to the Land Rover and moved back to where we had seen the leopard last. It was indeed the Xidulu female.
She groomed herself for a bit before going to sleep, and we left her to it, determined to come back later to see if she had brought the cubs to the kill.
Let’s just recap for a bit. From a simple scrape on the road, two clear hyena tracks and a slight scuff that told him where a leopard had stepped, Andrea had worked out the following:
A female leopard (1) had made a kill (2), which had then been stolen by a hyena (3). The hyena had dragged the kill off (4) but had been followed by the leopard (5) as she was probably hoping to steal some of the kill back. He then predicted (from recognizing her tracks mainly) that the leopard was most likely the Xidulu female (6).
He then had to follow the tracks to attempt to prove his theory, which he did in less than 10 minutes.
On every point he was proved correct, and this was all from a few marks on the ground that your average visitor to the bush wouldn’t have spotted if they had been standing on them, let alone perched on the bonnet of a vehicle that is moving along at 20km/h.
I just wanted to recount this story briefly so that people are aware of it, and state that with Andrea, as with many of the superbly gifted trackers at Londolozi, this was just another day on the job. There was no huge drama involved, no massive desire from him for adulation, it was just a standard track-and-find that he probably thinks nothing of, but that for mere mortals like the rest of us was an absolute textbook example of the skill level, insight and understanding of his craft that places only a very few trackers on the highest of pedestals.
And if you’re wondering if the cubs were there later, check back in in the next day or two…