Our leopard viewing is phenomenal.
Being right at the heart of the area with the highest leopard density yet recorded in Africa allows us practically unrivalled viewing of these magnificent cats, and on top of well-documented leopard behaviour, we are also able to record behaviours previously unwitnessed.
Father and son pairs courting the same female. Two females courting a male. Females raising cubs to the age of one year then pushing them into premature independence (and essentially to their deaths) to come into oestrus and mate once more.
The more we try to understand, the more we realise we don’t know, yet the more we appreciate that the behaviour of leopards – as for many animals – is far more varied than a simple species-wide description. It is down to the individual, in its individual circumstance in time and habitat.
Yet despite our best efforts to habituate young leopards to the presence of Land Rovers – mainly through sensitive viewing when they are young – some remain enigmas; even leopards born and raised in the Sabi Sand Reserve.
And if I’m honest, these are my favourite individuals.
Read Mark Manson’s two books – The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F@#$, and Everything is F#$@ed, both of which are brilliant and which I can highly recommend – and you’ll learn about how the real key to enjoying a satisfying life is the solving of problems, not the avoiding of them. This might be obvious to some, but it’s news to many others. It is through struggle that we learn and grow, and I know this may seem like an obscure example of what Mr. Manson is trying to talk about, but I prefer a leopard sighting that doesn’t come easy.
The Mashaba female was born in the Sand River within two kilometres of the Londolozi camps, and I have probably seen her hundreds of times in my time here. Very rarely has she looked straight at me. To her, the Land Rover I drive is simply an extension of her environment – completely ignorable. She might approach along a gravel road and not then even deign to lift her head as she walks by within touching distance.
The Mashaba female is currently Londolozi’s best-known leopard. Her relaxed nature means she is comfortable around the vehicles.
The Robson’s 4:4 male on the other hand, was a completely different story. Shy, elusive, preferring to walk the drainage lines rather than venture down the roads… weeks would go by without a sighting of him. And when he was found, you couldn’t get to within 50 metres of him before you could see his discomfort growing and he would slink off into the long grass, often not to be seen again for days.
This rangy male was an enigma, arriving on Londolozi in the mid to latter parts of 2014 and staying mainly in the western areas.
With him, you had to work for a sighting. You had to sit very still and very quiet. You couldn’t get close. You had to anticipate his movements, but even then he’d most likely just avoid the log you were parked near in the hope that he’d jump on it.
Yet, if you even managed one clean photo or even just a clear view of him, you rode that high for days. It almost certainly hadn’t come without effort, even if that effort was simply self-control.
The Mawelawela male is like that. Despite being born in the Sabi Sand Reserve, he grew up unrelaxed, and even though he has been resident on Londolozi for at least the last nine months, I can count the sightings of him on the fingers of two hands. Tracks of a male leopard are called in on the radio, the occasional growl is heard from a thicket line when the trackers are on foot, but for the most part, he goes unseen.
I recently sat for well over two hours near a kill he had made in the hope that he’d show himself, but my only reward was a spotted back disappearing into some Terminalia thickets. Yet even that – my first official sighting of him if my memory serves me correctly – was hugely satisfying.
There was effort, there was reward – albeit a minor one – and in the combination of the two there was the validation of the whole experience.
It’s amazing how many metaphors for life can be found in the bush, and in the simplicity of simply sitting in silence, waiting for an unrelaxed leopard to emerge from hiding, can be found the beginnings of life’s joy.
Just as long as you catch a glimpse of a whisker…