The Leopards of Londolozi are more than just a favourite part of the Big Five: they’re part of the fabric of daily life both in and out of camp. Sit down with the staff at lunchtime, for example, and you’ll be thrown into the latest broadcast of local leopard news:
“Saw Inyathini male this morning in the south-east… Ximungwe young male getting to be independent… Nkoveni female shifting her territory…”
It might sound like the staff at Londolozi live for leopard gossip, discussing who’s living where and who’s pairing up with who (“You won’t BELIEVE who the Mashaba female was caught mating with!”), but the leopard affinity here runs much deeper. The lodge keeps detailed family trees of Londolozi’s leopard lineages and rangers and trackers can identify individual leopards not only from their spot patterns but from their behavioural quirks, their territorial habits, and even slight differences in their tracks. Staff identify with particular leopards, seeking them out in the bush; they photograph them, track their development, keep tabs on their mating patterns, and hope to see their offspring grow to maturity.
One leopard, often spoken about at Londolozi with great reverence (and perhaps just a trace of fear), is the Anderson 4:4 male. Unofficially (but notoriously) the largest leopard in the entire Sabi Sand Reserve – or at least Londolozi – the Anderson male has made a name for himself, but at the age of eleven is now getting on in years. He hasn’t been seen much lately, and I figured I’d missed my chance to encounter him in the bush.
Then a few nights ago night, on my way to bed, James “Of The Blog” Tyrrell jogged past me on his way to fetch a vehicle: “We’re going out to find lions – leaving in two minutes!”
With ranger Greg Pingo at the wheel, our nighttime staff bumble set out on a mission to find the Ntsevu pride, which fellow ranger Andrea Sithole had heard in the distance earlier that evening. As we descended into the dry Sand River bed, the warm night air became deliciously cool, and after a bit of bundu-bashing over rocks and reeds, Greg cut the engine and headlamps. We sat in the riverbed in total silence, each of us quietly taking in the magic of the evening, alone in the bush, looking for lions under a glowing moon.
Our first pass through the river led to a dead end, but back on the riverbank we soon heard the rumble of mating lions and zoomed back down for another try. With lions on the brain, we were suddenly thrown a bushveld curveball in the form of a leopard lying just meters from where Greg had stopped the vehicle. Only at Londolozi can bumping into a leopard be such a casual event, though a closer look with the spotlight proved we were in the presence of a legend: the Anderson male.
It soon became clear, though, that things weren’t right with him: the leopard had a large gash on its neck and was breathing rapidly and heavily. Looking at his battle-scarred face and ragged tail, we realized Anderson was not long for this world; Greg estimated he had only a week left. A wave of sadness washed over our bumble as we came to terms with what we were seeing: almost certainly one of the last sightings of this mythical fixture of Londolozi’s leopard landscape.
Once again Greg switched off the headlights, leaving us to sit silently in the company of this still formidable animal at the end of its days, able to see only its hulking silhouette in the sand. That’s when the Ntsevu cubs arrived.
As the pride materialized out of the darkness, bounding over a crest in the riverbed, my heart pounded in my chest: over a dozen lions trotting toward us, and a leopard in the same sighting! But the lions were moving at a serious clip, and the excitement gave way to dread as we registered that they’d detected the Anderson male’s scent and pegged him as an easy target. We all held our breath and braced for a gruesome fight.
Whether it was our spotlight or the sound of the lions that tipped him off, the Anderson male dipped into whatever energy reserves he had left and zipped out of sight with one or two seconds to spare. As we let out a collective sigh of relief, the lions turned to the female nyala kill stashed under a nearby tree, attacking it with incredible ferocity. It was an emotionally charged moment, one that revealed the flip side of Londolozi’s bounty of leopards. It’s easy to become so attached to individual leopards here that this part of a leopard’s circle of life becomes hard to swallow.
But long after the Anderson male stops making headlines in the lunchtime leopard newsroom, we can continue to reflect happily on a wild life well lived and, even in his final days, the endless awe he inspired.