“The first leopard that one meets… in its wild state and up-close, is a wildlife experience that transcends all others. As it pads away you are left feeling that you have seen something special, that you are as close to the wild world as it is possible to get while still in the vehicle.” Mitch Reardon in Shaping Kruger.
It is true that when one sees a leopard in the wild, it is a fleeting moment of transcendence that grips us. Whether its the first or the fiftieth time, the heart quickens, palms sweat and the adrenaline pumps as our hands grip a little tighter on the Land Rover bars. It’s almost as if something inside flutters… and then disappears. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, leopards in particular leave an indelible impression on those of us lucky enough to see them in their natural habitat.
Leopards are often portrayed as silent, solitary and secretive nocturnal killers that exhibit a hallucinogenic quality that allows them to disappear at will. They basically invented patience and – courtesy of a cryptic pelt – can blend into any piece of substrate under any light conditions. But here in the Sabi Sand Wildtuin they have a habit of moving around in broad daylight. Last week we watched one of Londolozi’s favourite females execute a quintessential ambush. Sadly, I didn’t have my camera with me so I’ll have to paint the reader a verbal picture.
Late one morning we found the Nkoveni female in the Sand River’s thick vegetation. She was hungry.
The epitome of stealth, she moved like a shadow, threading her way between the wild date palms in search of a meal. It wasn’t long before she spotted movement twenty meters in front of her. An impala!
On padded feet the “consummate master of concealment” held her body flat against the ground, folded her ears back and inched closer. In full view, we watched this perfectly evolved beast of prey as she crept towards her quarry. Every time the impala ewe dropped its head to browse, she would edge forward always sticking behind cover. Before long she was no more than five meters from her target. Through the binoculars we could see her body tense up as taut as a bow spring. Before the impala ewe could pluck another leaf, the Nkoveni female was onto her. Two short bounds was all it required. In less than four minutes she’d secured her kill and dragged it further into cover. It was a moment in the life of a leopard that we rarely get to see.
We often have to remind ourselves that leopards really are the embodiment of secrecy and the definition of elusive. I’ve been in more Game Reserves than I care to remember where the only sign of their passing is a faint footprint.
But even at Londolozi, when the sign is clear and when the scent is so fresh that its still steaming off the grass on a cold winters morning, they can still prove hard to find. The Anderson male and the Iyathini male leopards often make a point of eluding rangers and trackers.
But that is a story for another time…