At Londolozi we have some of the best leopard viewing in the world. The habitat provides for a very dense population of the elusive animals and their more often than not relaxed nature and comfort around our Land Rovers allows us and our guests the opportunity to witness some incredible moments. Because we are in such a fortunate situation and have been for so long, we are even able to follow the lives of specific individuals, in some cases watching the leopard grow from a tiny, helpless cub into successful territorial adult. This has continued for generations and is totally captivating; similar to reading a good book or watching a series. Certain leopards are seen more often than others and hold a more of leading role in the records and sightings books whereas others tend to remain more secretive.
One of the latter is the Ingrid Dam Female.
Spending her time defending a territory in the north-western corner of Londolozi where roads are few and far between and the Combretum thicket covers the land makes finding this female rather challenging. Occasionally she’ll grace us with her presence and although she is not viewed often, she is fairly habituated.
More recently, what has made this female even more intriguing is the fact that for several weeks we suspected she was denning cubs in one of the rocky outcrops within her territory. They were first seen late last year, and from quite a distance and then again on another two occasions a few weeks later. But because of the female’s elusive nature and the fact that her den site was half way up an inaccessible rocky outcrop there was always a great deal of uncertainty – how many cubs were there? Were they still alive? Is she still denning them in that area? All of these factors created quite a feeling suspense whenever one drove through that section of the reserve.
One afternoon, we set off out of camp, crossed the Sand River and ventured into the northern section of the reserve. We were in fact in search of a small group of buffalo bulls that had been seen that morning and happened to be passing through, and we weren’t really on the lookout for leopards. Driving through the thicket on a windy road, we came around a bend to find a female leopard walking straight towards us along the road and of course, it was the Ingrid Dam female.
Unfazed by our presence, she strolled right past us and veered off the road into a section of long grass. As she passed by I inspected her underbelly, looking for any sign that she was still nursing cubs, and sure enough, she was. We stuck with her as she made her way down into the drainage line towards a prominent game trail. As we slowly drove behind her, tracker Milton Khoza and I began to discuss what her next move may be.
She was heading in the direction of Ximpalapala Koppie where her cubs had last been seen, although that had been around two-and-half weeks before. We didn’t want to get our hopes up too much but as we carried on following her I began to inform our guests about this particular leopard, her background and the sporadic sightings of her cubs.
The excitement grew as we emerged out of the thicket with the rocky outcrop straight in front of us. I was quite confident that she was returning to the cubs as she began to occasionally pause to peer up on to the rocks. As the leopard made a turn around the base of the outcrop though, two hyenas emerged some 20 meters from her. They had been wallowing at a nearby watering hole. As swift as ever, she dropped to the ground and found cover behind a small termite mound. Leopards in general hate being seen by other animals – testament to their secretive nature – but for the Ingrid Dam female, on this particular day, she especially wouldn’t want to draw the attention of hyenas if her cubs were anywhere nearby. Fortunately the hyenas ambled on past her, seemingly unaware of her presence.
Although she hadn’t been seen, her behaviour clearly changed and she began to move away from the rocky outcrop and towards a small watering hole nearby. I looked across at Milton and he shook his head, signalling to me that he didn’t think she was going to meet up with the cubs today. And that was alright.
We had spend over two hours following one of the most beautiful animals in the world, through an incredible landscape – and what’s more we had been the only vehicle in the sighting the entire time. We were now beginning to lose light as the sun dipped closer to the horizon and I felt we had seen all that we were going to, but I was wrong.
Moments before I started the vehicle to drive off, a quiet ‘chuffing’ sound was made by the female leopard. This sound is often used by mother leopards when communicating with their cubs. She continued to ‘chuff’ as she made her way down to the waters edge and began to drink (another amazing scene in itself), constantly looking over her left shoulder. We carefully scanned the area in which she was looking but couldn’t see anything until eventually, after a few minutes, Milton spotted a tiny leopard cub clinging to the top branches of a small tree at the waters edge! We suspected that the hyenas we encountered earlier had chased the cub into the tree during their wallowing and it had been there the whole time. Moments later it made its way down the tree and joined its mother drinking at the waterhole.
As if the sighting couldn’t get better, the mother then gently began grooming the young cub with a few licks, placed her powerful jaws carefully around the scruff of its neck and lifted the cub up and away from the waters edge. Some rangers spend over a decade waiting and hoping to see a leopard cub being carried in the jaws of its mother and here it was happening right in front of us. Milton, with 23 years experience at Londolozi had only seen this happen on three other occasions in his long career as a tracker. It was amazing. As luck would have it, I didn’t have any camera on me other than my cellphone which I quickly pulled out to the capture the moment.
The cub was rather large to still be carried around in this fashion, hence why the mother had to stop several times to re-position her grip. We never saw the second cub at all this afternoon, but a couple of days later both cubs and mother were found together. Sightings of the trio though have since declined again and the certainty of the cubs survival is once again anybody’s guess. Nevertheless, on that afternoon, they provided an experience I’ll never forget.