In the early hours of Saturday morning, in an incident unseen by human eyes – like so many others in the bush – the Piva male leopard, one of Londolozi’s most well-known, was pulled from the boughs of a Saffron tree by lions and killed.
No-one saw it happen, but the signs were clear for all. Deep gouges in the bark from lethal claws tearing through it. Tufts of mane hair caught on a branch where what are suspected to be the Avoca males attempted to lunge up to grab the leopard. A drag mark across the sandy track led to where his carcass – partially consumed by hyenas – lay. It was still warm upon its discovery, suggesting that his death had occurred only a short while before.
The Piva male’s passing has brought about a different reaction in the guest and guiding community of Londolozi and surrounds than I’ve seen before upon the death of an individual leopard. It’s not so much grief or a sense of loss that has been the overwhelming response, but more a feeling of disbelief. This was no old leopard being pushed out of his territory, no young pretender, no injured individual struggling from day to day. No, this was a gorgeous animal in his absolute prime, who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I have seen lions chase leopard on many occasions, but never with any success; invariably the lion gives up if the leopard continues to run, or if the leopard seeks refuge in a tree (almost certainly the case here), the lion(s) lose interest, as their climbing abilities don’t even compare to those of their spotted cousins. The Piva male, it seems, simply chose the wrong tree. Quick or even instant decisions are often the fine margin between life and death in the animal kingdom, and although a tree might have been the best option at the time (maybe the lions came at him from different directions and evasion on the ground wasn’t an option), a Saffron is not the ideal species to climb to try and get out of reach of marauding lions – it is a rather low and scraggly tree, lacking the height and vertical trunk needed to provide a safe refuge for a leopard. It would have been a relatively simple matter for the two Avoca males to scramble or even reach up and pluck the Piva male out.
Here are what a few of the rangers had to say about the loss of this magnificent creature:
Amy: I clearly remember my first leopard sighting on Londolozi, it was of the Piva male. Driving in the sandy tracks of the stunning Tugwaan riverbed, I looked up into a weeping boer bean tree arching over the vehicle above us and looked into the face of this substantial male resting in its boughs. We quite literally drove underneath him. I had guided at two other game reserves before moving to Londolozi and although the second of those had a population of fairly relaxed leopards, I had never seen anything the likes of the Piva male before.
For me, he came to epitomise the Leopards of Londolozi, who so graciously allow us into their lives. And because of what he came to represent for me, the news of his death struck me harder than any other leopard thus far. As always, Nature has its way and I choose not to question it but I can say that I feel incredibly grateful and privileged to have spent almost three years looking into the life of this truly beautiful cat.
Kevin Power: People tell us we shouldn’t have emotions about the animals we see out here in the bush, they say we shouldn’t get attached, but its easier said than done. I know we should never anthropomorphise or think these animals care for us – they don’t – but we certainly care about them. I certainly do.
Hearing about the Piva male’s death was devastating. I first saw him as a young leopard in the south of the Sabi Sands just as he had left his mother; he was about two years old. I’ve watched him grow into a large dominant male siring cubs of his own and establishing territory in some of the most prime leopard territory in the world. I’ve had some of the most memorable leopard sightings with him; viewing him in his natural habitat certainly has given me so much enjoyment and happiness.
It will be difficult driving around his territory knowing we not going to see his tracks on the road, but I will certainly remember all the smiles and incredible feelings he brought to me and hundreds of others.
A true legend of the Sabi Sands, gone too early, he will be sorely missed.
Nick Kleer: The Piva male had a presence about him that simply cannot be put into words. I loved viewing this leopard. He was the most beautiful of any male I have ever seen.
He was calm in his manner but yet you could feel his power simply through a glance. He was, quite simply, wonderful to be around, and the news of his passing before his time was shocking and has saddened us all deeply. It only really struck me while out on game drive on Sunday morning when we came across an old track of his in the Sand River. We have lost a legend. This is unfortunately, for those of us who become attached, the laws of nature. It was an absolute honour to have been able to share so many hours in this leopard’s presence.
Thank you for allowing us all to do so!
There is a sense of deja vu here, writing about a leopard killed by the Avoca male lions, the same fate the Xidulu female suffered only a few months ago, yet the knock-on effect of the Piva male’s death could have far greater implications for Londolozi’s leopards over the next few months.
I’ll go into that next week; for now let us confine ourselves to simply saying farewell to an animal that had a much greater impact on people than he himself could ever be aware of.
Thinking back now, I realise that the first leopard cubs I ever saw in the wild were the Piva male and his sibling. Little did I know that I would end up viewing that tiny male for the better part of a decade as he grew into a gorgeous and hulking specimen; an archetypal representative for his species.
Piva, Treehouse or Selati male, whatever name you chose to call him by, whether or not you feel an attachment to a wild animal is appropriate, and whether or not you ever saw this male on a visit to Londolozi, one can still appreciate the sense of loss that comes with the death of an animal like this. We can find solace in the fact that we actually know what happened to him, whereas in most cases, leopards simply disappear.
However tragic it may seem that he died in his prime, knowing his fate brings with it a sense of closure; it lets those who followed him grieve, make their peace with his passing, and say goodbye…