The Ndzaneni female isn’t seen very often. She inhabits the deep south of Londolozi, an area of extensive thickets and deep drainage lines.
She is not a particularly big female, and more often than not the only evidence we have of her presence is a pug mark or two in the Tugwaan Riverbed, or the distant alarm bark of a kudu as she slinks through the Combretums.
A couple of years ago she gave birth to her first litter, and being the competitive bunch that the ranging team is, we all had bets laid as to where the cubs were being concealed. A map was drawn up with each ranger selecting their spot and buying in to the pool, winner-take-all style.
For weeks though, the site remained a mystery. Anytime the female was seen, she would throw off anyone tailing her, and although suckle marks on her belly told us the cubs were still alive, no one was any the wiser as to where they were being concealed.
Eventually, enough was enough, and Amy Attenborough and I decided that come hell or high water, we were going to find the den. We picked our day, and knowing our own den-finding skills were somewhat lacking, we enlisted the help of Senior Tracker Innocent Ngwenya. We were going to scrutinise every last section of this leopard’s territory until we found the den itself or we found the leopard, and then we would wait with her until she led us back to the cubs. They would only have been about 6 weeks old at this time, and would need a high level of care, so she must be going back to them regularly. The plan was flawless.
Or so we thought…
We started by carefully working upstream along the Tugwaan Drainage – a riverbed the Ndzanzeni female was known to frequent – and if we didn’t find anything, planned to move south from there into the core of her territory until we found fresh tracks. Luck was with us, as within a few hundred metres of entering the riverbed, Innocent calmly raised his hand from the tracker’s seat up front. There in the riverbed were the clear, fresh prints of a female leopard, and plenty of them. This indicated she had been spending time in this one spot. It didn’t appear to be a likely place for a den, although a tangle of roots jutting out of the riverbank might possibly conceal tiny leopards. A glance up into the boughs of the Weeping Boer Bean, the roots of which formed the tangle, revealed the answer. A freshly made duiker kill hung there, with blood still dripping slowly from it. And there, hidden in the deep shade of the roots, lay the prostrate form of the Ndzanzeni female.
“This is it!” we thought. We had found the leopard before 06:30, and she surely had to go and nurse the cubs sometime during the day. All we had to do was wait. Knowing it might still be a few hours before she moved, we decided to do things properly. Radioing the standby ranger to come and wait with the leopard just in case she moved sooner rather than later, Amy, Innocent and I rushed back to camp for supplies. We stocked up on a cooler box full of water, wolfed down a quick breakfast, and made arrangements to have lunch delivered to us out in the field if we weren’t back home by 13:00.
Then Amy and I hopped back into the Land Rover and raced back to the kill site.
And there we waited.
And waited, and waited.
A hyena came by and the leopard snarled at it. Still we waited.
The sun reached its zenith and the heat made everything drowsy, and the waiting continued. By now we had shifted positions to a nearby Tamboti grove where the shade was a little thicker. We had both waded through about 15 chapters of our respective books at this point and still the leopard didn’t move.
The afternoon game drives came out and one or two rangers came to join us, but the leopard slept on.
Finally, at around 18:30, after twelve hours of waiting (it was January so still very light at this point), the Ndzanzeni female started yawning and grooming; signs she was about to move. She wandered a little way down the riverbed and then climbed the northern bank. Our hearts sank, as she had entered one of the most impenetrable areas on the whole of Londolozi. By some miracle we managed to get the Land Rover out of the riverbed and keep her in sight, and we were just in time to watch a fascinating interaction between the leopard and two honey badgers emerging from their den, although thick bush and long grass meant we couldn’t see all that clearly.
She moved off to drink at a small pan system and we managed to capture some footage in the fading light, but our energy levels and commitment were starting to flag by now.
At just past 20h00 the Ndzanzeni female spotted a herd of impalas up ahead. We had assumed she would simply head straight back to wherever her den was, but she hadn’t, and instead of having a crack at the impalas as we hoped she might, she lay down and went to sleep.
That was when we called it. 14 hours of waiting, and we finally cracked.
Maybe the fact that we were with her meant she didn’t want to go back to her den. Even though well-habituated, having seen Land Rovers since she was a tiny cub, she might still have felt that she didn’t want to expose her cubs to any foreign intrusion. Realising this the hard way, and being mindful that if she did want to hunt the impalas we might impact the hunt, we conceded the day to her and headed home.
The beauty of the whole experience was that it didn’t feel like a loss. How many people can say they’ve spent 14 hours straight with a wild leopard, no matter how inactive she might have been?
I’d be more than happy to do it all again.