The Nanga female is a leopard that hasn’t been featured much over the last few weeks. Her daughter the Makomsava female has been seen far more regularly, and it has led to some concern over the mother’s whereabouts.
Having said that, her territory isn’t covered by too many roads, and it’s not hard for a leopard to avoid detection for weeks at a time, especially if no specific efforts are made to track her down.
The north-east corner of Londolozi is one in which we see few leopards. It’s a high-risk, high-reward section of the reserve covered with extensive bushwillow thickets, and our understanding of leopard territories and movements in the area is patchy at best.
The Nanga female was born to the Nyelethi 4:4 female in 2009 as part of a litter of three.
So when ranger Guy Brunskill and tracker Shadrack Mkhabela recently found a hoisted duiker kill in a dead Knobthorn tree there, speculation was rife as to which leopard may have made it. When Guy and Shadrack drove closer to have a look, but the leopard must have been lying in the long grass, as when our vehicle and another joined a few minutes later, it suddenly emerged as if from nowhere, looking towards the kill.
We were hoping she (it was clearly a female from her her small stature) would climb the tree immediately, as the sun was still up and the duiker carcass was bathed in golden light, but it was not to be, and she remained on the ground. Perhaps she felt she would be too exposed in full daylight, as the tree was essentially just the trunk of the dead Knobthorn, with no branches and therefore no cover. A few hyenas nearby were highly indicative that her poor choice of hoisting platform must have been made under duress, as there were many Marula trees not too far away.
After about a 30 minute wait, she stood up again and began approaching the tree, a pronounced limp evident when she tried to use her front right foot. She looked like the Nanga female, but the fact that she had been lying in the grass and we had been viewing her mainly at a distance made identifying her tricky at first. Guy was sure he recognised her spot pattern, and he was later proved to be correct. Way more correct than he was when trying to direct us into the sighting, but that’s another story…
Cameras poised, everyone waited with baited breath for her to ascend, for surely no one there had ever seen a leopard on a clearer perch with a kill?
As the light faded, we moved our vehicle a couple of times to experiment with some different angles; silhouette shots, side-lighting and some simple spotlight photography. The open tree made things infinitely easier.
As we sat there enjoying the evening glow, a bright orb crept up over the eastern horizon. It was the full moon, slowly making its way up into the sky towards where it would only a few hours later be in the longest lunar eclipse of the 21st century. It’s amazing how quickly the moon appears to rise when it has a reference point like a leopard in a tree to move past, and by the time it was in position beyond the Nanga female, it was already bright, and as such very difficult to capture adequately without some serious camera gear and a long setup time. Focusing on the leopard, we made the most of this unique photo opportunity and tried to get shots of her with simply a bright orb behind her.
Having been in the sighting and knowing what potential there was, I’m already thinking ahead to the next opportunity and exactly what equipment I’ll need to get the exact shot I’m after. Maybe leopard silhouetted against the full moon (massive lens required)? Maybe leopard exposed with moon also exposed for (multiple shots required, very stable camera, massive lens required)?
Whatever image can be envisaged, I think it might be better to just be happy with what I’ve got, as the opportunity is very unlikely to come around again any time soon…