Sometimes things in the bush just seem to go your way.
It was my guests’ last evening drive and we had been really lucky with what we had seen over the course of their stay, so tracker Dorrence and I decided to roll the dice and look for the one thing that had evaded us – a leopard cub. We decided to search of the Ximungwe female and her cub.
Sightings of the two had been sparse over the weeks leading up to this afternoon, but we just had a feeling that today could be our lucky day.
It didn’t take long for us to find the first encouraging sign of this elusive leopard – there were tracks of a female on the road, on top of the Land Rover tracks that had driven that very same road in the morning.
Having been viewed by vehicles from an early age, this leopard is supremely relaxed around Land Rovers.
Dorrence leaped off the tracker’s seat and began following the tracks on foot. I could tell he was excited because by the time I was finished explaining the significance of these leopard tracks to my guests, he was already a few hundred meters away and moving at speed, as though he were being pulled along by the trail this leopard had walked. After I had caught up to Dorrence and he had conducted a proper assessment of the tracks, we decided that he would carry on on foot while I looped around and checked towards a big dry river bed nearby – the perfect hideout for a hunting leopard.
Huge trees that line the banks of the riverbed cast dappled light onto the ground below as we wound our way downstream. It was peaceful despite the air of expectation of what might be waiting around each bend in the river. The peace was interrupted by a radio call from Dorrence: the tracks had changed direction completely. The female leopard had been walking south and now the tracks seemed to double back on themselves in a northerly direction. This sort of behaviour suggested that the female had been hunting. The anticipation cranked up another notch.
We exited the dry river bed with a bit more urgency and moved back north, driving slowly, stopping often to listen.
Again, a radio call from Dorrence: there were impala alarm calls in the gully not far from where we had first found the leopard’s tracks. We sensed that she must be close but if we missed our chance she would melt away into the thicket and we would never find her. We now had to cover some serious ground to get back to where the alarm calls were coming from. Once we arrived I switched off the engine to listen for the alarm calls – silence.
We drove a little further along the road – more silence. I worried we had missed her. I picked up the radio to call Dorrence when suddenly we spotted an impala carcass lying next to the road. The Ximungwe female lay next to the carcass, still breathing heavily from her successful hunt. Success for her, and success for us!
After a few quick photos, our minds turned to the next question – where was her cub ? With daylight fading fast and the kill still on the ground, we wondered whether the leopard would be able to keep the kill safe from the hyenas that would inevitably come to investigate.
Before we had time to ponder things for too long, she got up and started walking. As we tried to follow her through the thick bush, I mentioned to the guests that she might be going to fetch her cub and bring it to the kill before nightfall. We lost sight of her slinking away into the sunset but fortunately James Tyrrell and Alfie Mathebula were on hand to find her again while we navigated our way back to the road.
The leopard made a beeline straight through a thick gully towards a clearing on the far hill. We drove around and waited for her in the clearing. When she emerged from the thicket she was softly calling; a sure sign that she was looking for her cub. The next minute we were treated to a little leopard cub bounding playfully through the grass towards her mother:
Reunited at last! Despite the touching moment, we were still anxious to find out whether or not the two hungry leopards would have a meal waiting for them when they got back to the kill. We waited with bated breath as mother and cub crossed back through the steep gully in the direction of the impala carcass.
There was barely any light left by the time the leopards got back to it, and thankfully it was still there with no hyenas around, but we knew we wouldn’t be able stay for long as we didn’t want to draw any unnecessary attention to to the scene. We were able watch the cub feed for a brief moment before leaving the two of them to their own devices for the long night ahead. As we drove away, the Land Rover was filled with mixed emotions – happiness that the mother and cub made it to the kill before the hyenas did but also unease about what would happen if the mother didn’t get the kill out of reach of scavengers. Only time would provide us with the answer.
Early the next morning, ranger Alfie Mathebula was the first to check the last position of the mother and cub. To our delight, he announced on the radio that the kill was in the tree and the Ximungwe female and her cub were safe and sound. As we rounded the corner we looked up to see the two leopards up in the tree bathing in the golden early morning light; relief washed over all of us.
To see the whole story unfold the way it did gave us a rare insight into the life of this leopard and her youngster but for her it was just another day living wild in Londolozi.