“Leopards are renowned for organising their lives so as to avoid encounters with people. Unlike lions, they are furtive and solitary, appearing and vanishing like a hallucination” Mitch Reardon, Shaping Kruger.
Of my South African friends – most of which have been visiting wild areas from a young age – a large proportion of them have never seen a leopard in the wild. For those that have, a fleeting glimpse of one walking across a road would signify a top sighting for them.
For those of you that have visited Londolozi, you will know that the leopards we are fortunate to view here are unique. We are in our fourth decade of a relationship between man and leopard. A relationship that may be overlooked, but is in fact the culmination of years of careful observation and respect from the many trackers and guides that have passed through and continue to work at Londolozi.
We are blown away by the sightings we have of these magnificent cats on a daily basis. One of the female leopards that we view fairly regularly – her territory surrounds the Londolozi camps – is the Nkoveni female.
A young female that lives to the east and south of camp. Easily recognised by her 2:2 spot pattern she is often to be found in Marula trees.
The Nkoveni female is one of the most relaxed leopards that you may encounter out here. Now don’t get me wrong, she will still be found using the thickets along the banks of the Sand River to move within and to hunt, however she is not shy to walk directly past one’s vehicle as if it is not even there. This goes against everything you will read about leopards in the field guides!
This nonchalant behaviour is what allows us to bear witness to the daily activity of these wonderful creatures as if we are ghosts, invisible to the leopards. In fact, one could argue that because the Leopards of Londolozi are so undisturbed by us, we are having less of an impact on their lives than if they were not so habituated, constantly expending energy to avoid us.
But why are the leopards so relaxed?
What it comes down to really, is the offering of respect. Respect of personal space. By allowing the leopards to do what they are doing without disturbing them, they begin to view us (in the vehicle) as just another part of their environment that poses no threat to them. If they are listening, we switch off the engine. If they are hunting, we give them space and silence. If they are not happy with us in their space, we leave them alone entirely. In this way, the habituation of leopards to vehicles occurs.
Is this relaxed nature inherited by cubs?
Yes and no. Ask some of the guides and trackers who have been here for many years and they will list examples of how some do and some don’t. In the case of the Nkoveni female, her litter of two from early 2017 were very confident, from a young age. We assumed they had taken on this trait from their mother. Those two cubs unfortunately did not make it past nine months due to a shift in male dynamics (at least one we know was killed by the incumbent Flat Rock male and we suspect the other met the same fate) but the Nkoveni female fell pregnant and gave birth to another cub around April 2018. We all assumed it would be as relaxed as the two from the previous litter but were proven wrong.
Ranger Grant Rodewijk and tracker Jerry Hambana sat for a whole 2,5 hours at a sighting where the Nkoveni female had a hoisted kill to which she had led her three-month-old cub last year. It’s around this age that cubs first start getting introduced to kills. They sat in silence with the vehicle off, hoping for a view of the young cub. The mother was calling and calling for the cub to come out of a bush in which it was hiding. All they saw was a flash of spots as it had a quick peep out at the vehicle. These tedious hours though – the unthreatening presence of the vehicle with the mother even encouraging the youngster to come out – are what it takes for these young leopards to become habituated.
Would this youngster be one of the few that never accepts vehicles? One of those leopards that chooses to set up territory far from any lodges, preferring to never be seen?
Luckily for us, the cub continues to become more and more relaxed by the day. Generally, leopard cubs are dependent on their mothers for just under two years, although at Londolozi our records show that here they generally become independent younger – at around 15-16 months. The current cub of the Nkoveni female, when left alone while the mother is hunting, has probably witnessed hundreds of vehicles driving past it that haven’t noticed it. This, combined with our careful introduction of one vehicle into a sighting, then two as the cub relaxes and eventually a maximum of three and only when the cub is with its mother, has now resulted in the somewhat skittish cub becoming as relaxed as the mother. The development and change over a period of about four to five months is phenomenal and something that most of us were unvcertain would happen.
Having been visiting the Greater Kruger National Park area since 1994, it did not surprise me that I had never seen a leopard cub until I joined Londolozi in early 2017. After all, leopards are the shy creatures of the night that pass by in the shadows, aren’t they? Come to Londolozi though and this will change. As can be seen, the relationship between leopards and humans continues to grow here. The leopards we view here go on with their daily lives as representatives of their species. Acting as ambassadors, they passively promote the conservation of our wild areas through the thousands of photos and memories that are made from them. All this while they continue to do what they do best: live as wild and free leopards.