Our plan for the morning was to go in search of leopard, more specifically the Ximungwe female. If luck was on our side, her two cubs -now approaching seven months of age – would be with her as well.
We slowly meandered down into the south-central section of Londolozi, where the Ximungwe female holds her territory.
It’s a beautiful area with a few wide open Marula crests on which the long grasses are just starting to lose their lush green appearance and turn a dry golden-brown. Between these crests are thick, densely vegetated drainage lines and dry river beds with a combination of bush-willow and tamboti trees creating – in some places – an impenetrable barrier for our vehicles. The female hadn’t been seen for the past two days and it was presumed that she and her cubs were hiding out in one of these thickets, possibly avoiding the threatening attention of lions, hyena or younger male leopards. Myself, and tracker Milton Khoza decided we’d have a crack at finding her.
Well over an hour after getting into the area, we found ourselves still searching. No tracks or other signs of the leopard were anywhere to be found. There was one last area that we could check before cutting our losses and so we set off, still at least vaguely hopeful.
As we drove past a small watering hole we spotted four female kudu all staring intently in the same direction across one of the open crests. Kudu are very alert and one of the more reliable antelope species in detecting the presence of a predator in the area and so we quickly turned off road and headed in the direction they were looking. We combed the edge of the thicket line, hoping to find the Ximungwe female ambling past but instead came across two spotted hyena moving swiftly through the long grass. They must have been what had caught the kudu’s attention.
We stuck behind the hyenas as they slowly moved back towards the dirt road on top of the crest. As we arrived on the road, Milton raised his hand from his seat on the hood of the vehicle, signaling me to stop. Fresh tracks of a pack of African wild dogs were unmistakable in the soft, fine sand!
As we were inspecting the tracks, with the vehicle switched off, we suddenly heard the yapping calls of the wild dogs further down the crest! We raced off in the direction that that calls were coming from, which took us back off the road and in the direction that the hyenas were now also moving. They were obviously trailing behind the pack hoping to get a lucky meal out of the wild dogs’ hunting efforts of the morning. We soon spotted two wild dogs in the long grass with their large ears giving away their position. What’s more is that they turned out to be the alpha breeding pair of the pack as we watched them mating – only the second time I had seen this rare sight. The wild dogs breed every year at this time, denning their youngsters during the winter months. We are quietly hoping that they decide to establish a den on our reserve this year!
While watching this, the rest of the pack – a total of 9 wild dogs – appeared and joined the others. As they greeted each other with great excitement the two hyenas that we had viewed earlier came trotting towards them causing the pack to slowly move off down the crest. Given that it was still quite early in the morning, there was still a good chance that the wild dogs were looking for something to hunt, so we stuck with them, hyenas in tow, across the open grassy area. After about 15 minutes of winding our way around behind the pack, three more hyenas arrived to join the fray. An amazing sight it was, to be surrounded by fourteen animals darting through the long grass, yapping with excitement at each other.
We were now a fair distance from any dirt track, deep within the block, between two drainage lines – one of which the animals were heading towards. Just as we came over a small rise Milton spotted a hoisted impala ram kill dangling from the branches of a Marula tree; something only a leopard could be responsible for! The wild dogs and hyenas, both of which who had probably smelt the kill from a long way before, were making a bee-line for the same tree! Seconds later, as they approached, a leopard bolted out the grass and up into a separate Marula tree – it was the Ximumgwe female! We drove closer to inspect the scene as the hyenas and wild dogs continued to hassle the leopard from the base of the tree.
It now became clear why the Ximungwe female had not been seen for the past few days. She had been feeding on this kill with no reason to move elsewhere. Given that it was a long way from any road, we wouldn’t have seen any fresh signs of her and therefore wouldn’t have been able to track her down. However, through a series a fortunate events we were invariably led to her by the hyenas and wild dogs. Had we not seen those kudus staring into the distance earlier our morning could have turned out completely different. Instead, we sat there in awe as three of Africa’s major predators interacted.
But where were the Ximungwe female’s two cubs? Given that the kill had been fed on over the past two days, she would have certainly brought her cubs here to feed as well. Just as we began to wonder, we spotted one cub high up in the thinnest branches of a Bushwillow tree – with the threatening presence of hyenas and wild dogs around the base of the tree, it had wisely rushed up there for safety.
Over the next 30 minutes the wild dogs and later the hyena slowly moved off. We stayed with the leopards, waiting for them to relax and also to see if the second cub would emerge. Sure enough, as the mother came down, she softly began contact calling, which not only brought the first cub down from the bush-willow tree but also drew the second out from the thick patch of grass which it had managed to hide out in for the duration of the morning’s exctiement.
The three cats all gathered and began grooming each other in the shade to close out a sighting and a morning that is going to be hard to top for a while!