The alarm calls of a monkey rang out over the Sand River. Standing on the river bank under the cool, dense shade of the Jackalberry trees, a little excitement stirred within me. We had stopped for coffee around 9am and standing there with mug in hand I decided to investigate the cause of these alarm calls coming from a little way upstream.
I wandered slowly along the bank peering down the steep 3-4 meter high slope into the narrow braid of the Sand River lined with dense, green undergrowth shadowed by beautiful Matumi and Jackalberry trees. The narrow sand-bottomed stream gurgled over a small clump of rocks with open beach sand at the water’s edge.
After walking upstream for a while I heard it again. “Chuck, chuck!”, the monkeys alarmed, this time right above me. I caught sight of one and followed its gaze down into the river about 50 m upstream from where I was standing up on the bank. Then I saw something on the sand beach at the water’s edge. Could it really be? A leopard? It lay dead still at the water’s edge. Or at least that’s what I thought I had seen.
I had left my glasses (and binoculars for that matter) on the vehicle where my guests were still enjoying their coffee. I edged a little closer as my heart climbed a little higher up my throat. YES! Definitely a leopard; a male leopard.
I immediately doubled back to inform the guests. Because the leopard was in the river and in such a dense area it would have been impossible to get a vehicle in there. I decided to offer to take the guests two by two, on foot, up to the point where I had seen the leopard from to have a look. Being a high vantage point up on the bank it would be a safe place to view from and with all the bush cover around, I hope that the leopard might feel more comfortable with our presence – if indeed he even noticed us – as he could slip away away into the undergrowth if he pleased.
And so we did. The first two guests came along with me and, with binoculars (and my glasses) this time, had a great view of him. The next two guests had their turn also getting a great view. As I arrived at the same view point with the final two guests I just caught a glimpse of him get up and disappear behind a bush. My heart sank as the last two guests had not seen him. I stood for a while trying to see if he would reappear.
Seeing a leopard is very special in any circumstance, and in the wild this is usually done from a vehicle. Seeing a leopard in the wild on foot is without doubt one of the most special wildlife experiences I had ever had. I was over the moon that I was getting the opportunity to be doing this with my guests.
We waited a little longer. Then some movement caught my eye, and there he was again! I helped the guests have a good view through binoculars then had a look myself. As I looked closer at the leopard something looked different. Looking carefully I noticed the leopard appeared smaller, lacking the broad, thickset shoulders and neck of the male we had just seen. Could it be another leopard? A female?
Then out from behind some flood debris came the male we had seen first. It was a male and female leopard together and immediately my heart rate doubled again. I told my guests to watch carefully as they might mate! Leopards rarely spend time together in such close proximity unless mating or if a mother is with her cubs. As they neared each other the female brushed up against the male, enticing him to mate. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing on foot, and with guests! The leopards went on and performed a full mating bout with the female lashing out at the male with growls and claws thrashing as the bout ended.
Seeing this sighting from a vehicle is special by any standards, but for me the fact that we were standing about 50m up on the river bank watching this made it completely unique.
The leopards then walked further into the river and as we lost sight of them, I remember saying to the guests that we probably would not see them again but decided to try relocate them in the vehicle anyway to get a closer look. It was a long shot, but by driving up and down the bank, stopping and switching off the engine to listen we were able to narrow down our search area. We chose an access point down into the river where we had heard more recent growling as they mated. We drove in and found them lying in a beautiful open section of the river where we enjoyed a great view of them mating.
The other exciting thing about leopards mating is that should the female fall pregnant, she will give birth about three months later. The rangers and trackers have been discussing where this leopard may decide to den as she has recently been seen more frequently around the area of her previously used den sites. This sighting took place towards the end of September, and the latest sightings of the Mashaba female seem to confirm that she is heavily pregnant.
With any luck we may be seeing tiny new cubs before the year is out!
The Mashaba female is currently Londolozi’s best-known leopard. Her relaxed nature means she is comfortable around the vehicles.
A dominant male leopard over the majority of the north. He originally took over the 4:4 Male's territory when he died.