Last week I had a few encounters with leopards. Two of them in particular stood out for me.
I enjoyed these sightings only in part due to the behaviour and movements of the spotted cats. The other part of the excitement (and for me this accounts for probably the largest part of it) comes from the process of finding these elusive animals.
Over the years Londolozi’s trackers and guides have fine-tuned their skills in tracking the big cats, especially leopards. In many other areas, trackers and guides have not had the chance to hone their leopard tracking skills to this extent because they are simply not afforded the opportunities. The leopard is a rare and elusive animal. Here at Londolozi, because legends likes Richard Siwela, and Elmon and Renias Mhlongo, as well as many others after them, have spend thousands of hours tracking leopards, the skills have been passed on, and the result is what you and I see today: world-class tracking.
This is one of the reasons that brought me to work in the bush. The chance to learn even the tiniest part of an ancient skill from local African trackers – many of whom learnt the skill set to ensure their own (and their family’s) survival – was a dream for me. It was a chance for me to connect with something so primitive. It is a skill that I believe humans are naturally drawn to because all of our ancestors were trackers and hunters at some point. These same skills are used here at Londolozi, just as they always have been, but now with a different intention: the service of conserving and protecting the animals we track.
On an early morning last week we were driving into an area to search for a leopard. We stopped the vehicle to look at a yellow-billed hornbill. As we did so the tracker I work with, Rob Hlatshwayo, heard a lone monkey alarm-calling in the distance. We edged forward in an attempt to see the monkey through the dense foliage.
There it was, high up in the branches of a tree, a good few hundred metres away. It started alarming repeatedly and by using binoculars we could see that it was looking up towards the top of the hill. We told the guests that this monkey has brilliant eyesight and could be seeing a predator (most likely a leopard) in the distance.
We drove into the bush and up towards the crest in the direction the monkey was staring. We saw two male impalas also both staring, stiff-bodied and nervous, in the same direction as the monkey had been… another clue! Further and further up the slope we drove and then we spotted what was distressing these animals: a leopardess lying in the fork of a tree!
As we edged closer we saw that she had recently killed and hoisted a young warthog in the branches next to her. The excitement in the vehicle was palpable and we enjoyed a brilliant sighting of the Mashaba female that morning!
The afternoon after we had that sighting of the Mashaba female we set out to find lions.
About an hour into the drive Rob fixed a hand signal which I know very well by now. It means, “Stop the vehicle, there are tracks on the ground that we need to look at”. As we came around the bonnet to look at the tracks we saw that – despite the heat of the day – a young leopardess had walked on that road not too long before. I parked the vehicle in the shade, told the guests we should not be away for more than fifteen minutes, and Rob and I followed the tracks into the bush.
Ten minutes later we were puzzled and disappointed. The ground had become coarse-grained gravel making it difficult to see the tracks and we had lost her trail. Such a light-footed animal barely leaves a print even at the best of times. What we had noted was the direction the leopardess had been traveling: towards a shaded drainage line. Now we needed to get back to the vehicle to check that our guests were okay and then drove in the direction the tracks had been pointing.
A couple minutes of careful driving later Rob suddenly tapped the vehicle with his index finger, getting me to stop again. He had heard the high-pitched shrill of a squirrel alarm calling in the direction the tracks were going. Now we were excited; we felt the energy, we knew we were getting closer to this leopard!
We drove slowly though, taking the time to make sure we didn’t miss anything. We knew she could be in the shade or in the long grass and difficult for us to see. ‘Tap, tap, tap‘. Rob’s finger on the bonnet again. This time it was with much more finesse and I knew he had spotted her. There she was, walking down to the drainage and the thick bush therein. She was shortly going to be out of sight. As she disappeared into the undergrowth we looped around in a last attempt to see her coming out on the other side. We found her emerging from the thicket again; she walked into an open clearing and we spent about an hour with that incredible animal. It was the Tamboti young female; the daughter of a leopardess who was viewed so many times by Londolozi guests in the last ten years. A young female who is now inheriting her mother’s territory.
The Tamboti female inhabited the south-eastern sections of Londolozi, having a large part of her territory along the Maxabene Riverbed.
So difficult to find and rightly so; a leopard’s life is one of secrecy and stealth. It is what makes leopards successful and resourceful hunters. It is also what makes seeing one of these stunning African cats so memorable!
The art of tracking ignites a powerful primal feeling, one of connection to nature, because it is an ancient skill used by our ancestors to survive in the bush as hunter/gatherers. It is also what allows us the opportunities to have memorable encounters with these African animals today. Ultimately, for many of us who live and work out here, the sighting is just the cherry on top. The thrill of the track is what really sets our souls on fire.