Alex van den Heever and Renias Mhlongo were one of Londolozi’s most formidable ranger/tracker partnerships. Working together for many years, they introduced countless guests to the magic of the African wilderness.
Renias is today considered one of Africa’s pre-eminent trackers, and has travelled the world over, tracking mountain lions in Patagonia, bears in the United States and Jaguars in the Amazon rainforest.
Alex was Head Ranger and Land Care Manager of Londolozi for many years, and has now moved on to become an internationally renowned tracker and motivational speaker. His first-hand perspective of the unique relationship between Londolozi and its leopards, and how it came about, we present to you here:
When Renias and I worked at Londolozi game reserve in the mid-1990s the leopard viewing was exceptional.
We watched them hunting, mating, and raising their cubs. On one occasion we even walked with a wild leopard while she hunted, with no sign of aggression or irritation forthcoming from her.
Leopards symbolise intelligence and independence. There’s an intangible sense of power about them.
For us, their mysterious nature is tempting. I find myself wanting to be closer. I had a recurring dream that I made friends with a leopard, which I loved.
It’s the reason why people fly halfway around the world to see one.
But the sightings weren’t always like that.
Dave Varty tells me they were lucky to get a glimpse of a leopard at Londolozi in the early 1970s. Monkeys alarming in the woodland. Or the remains of an impala carcass hanging in a tree – was the only confirmation that the animals were around.
Today, the Sabi Sand Game Reserve is synonymous with leopard sightings. A success story that has its origins largely at Londolozi.
How did this happen?
Tempting signs of leopards prompted the Londolozi guides to go in search of the secret cat.
And they had an advantage – expert wildlife trackers.
The initial tracking team consisted of Elmon Mhlongo, Phineas Mhlongo and Kimbian Mnisi. A couple years later Richard Siwela arrived. And in the early 1980s, Renias Mhlongo.
They were the most successful leopard trackers of their time. The ones who tracked them on foot until they found them.
Richard Siwela spent an unbroken 42 years tracking leopards every day at Londolozi. His success rate was about 70% at the height of his career. Tracker Academy’s top-performing tracker students achieve a success rate of only 22% with leopards.
Richard has probably tracked more leopards than anyone else in Africa. With great success.
These men crafted a relationship with the world’s most elusive big cat. It is a remarkable story. They were mavericks – achieving what no one else had done.
They developed trust with wild leopards so that people could view them. Without changing their behaviour in any way.
Leopards tread lightly. Their tracks can be incredibly obscure – even in clear soils. And they move in unpredictable directions. Making them difficult to trail.
The team was successful because of their refined tracking skills, intimate knowledge, and sheer tenacity. Respect for the animal was their main tenet – it’s what made it all possible.
Over 50 years, an extraordinary connection has emerged between the humans and leopards at Londolozi.
It is a relationship bound in reverence.
Metaphorically speaking, the leopards are sentient partners in that business. A partnership that allows for a vast sanctuary of wilderness to thrive. And which has inspired much more.
It’s an example of ancient tracking skills becoming relevant in modern conservation. And a model that’s been exported worldwide.
To me, the trackers are the heroes. They are legitimate co-creators of an entire industry.
One wonders what other opportunities exist. If we intentionally develop meaningful relationships with our animal kin.
If we can do it with leopards, surely it’s possible with all nature?
The ancient art of tracking is alive and well at Londolozi, and its future is maintained in no small part by the Tracker Academy.
Developed thanks to the care and involvement of the Rupert Foundation, and particularly Gaynor Rupert, the Academy trains previously disadvantaged young men and women in the ancient art of tracking, setting them on career paths in the ecotourism industry. Graduates of the Tracker Academy make up a significant portion of the current Londolozi tracking team…
If you would like to know more about this incredible not-for-profit initiative, or to make a small donation, please click here.
Absolutely wonderful and finely written article, you are champions of conservation! Thank you to all Tracker Academy and members for fulfilling the dream
Alex, I loved the video
Hi Alex, thx for writing this! I just love it.
Is it possible to send the text in a word doc or pdf format.
I can use it to sell Londolozi and make people aware of Tracker Academy.
My email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Thx a lot on forehand,
Fascinating history, thank you .
We visited in September 1993 for our silver wedding celebration . A wonderful experience never forgotten . Elmon was I am sure our tracker and provided us with fantastic viewing . I think Drew was our driver .We stayed in Tree Camp ? looking down into the river bed with Elephants rubbing against the supports underneath at night .I would love to come back but now approaching 80 It’s probably not possible . We wish you all a very successful future , keep up the good work .Tim Kendall
Alex, how awesome to read a post from you! The history of trackers and the early conservation efforts at Londolozi are legendary. The part you played in this process is so significant. Thank you for reminding us of the great history of this honored profession. Your leadership in training young people in the art of tracking has made this huge difference today. We almost had you visit us in Florida a couple of years ago, and we hope to make that happen someday!
The leopards at Londolozi are really fantastic, as are the possibilities to watch them. Big “Thank you” to all those wonderful trackers who have made this possible!
Fascinating program–definite change in attire!
Again I come back to your beautiful Londolozi Blog. Thank you again for the photos and the stories! I’m so hoping to come back soon.
Wonderful history-telling! I am always amazed by Londolozi trackers and have seen over 25 different leopards over several visits due, in part, to their keen tracking. “How did he see that?!” is a frequent refrain.
Thanks so much for this lovely post and video Alex! My brother in law have a copy of your and Renias’ book “Changing a Leopard’s Spots” and I enjoyed it immensely!! Wishing you all the best during this time, and for your intention about the endless possibilities to commune with all of nature.
Fabulous story thank you so much for sharing this.
This is an awesome story. The trackers have so much skill, just imagine all the stories they can tell of what they see on a daily basis.
Alex thanks for sharing the history of the original trackers of Londolozi with us. This will give us more insight and appreciation for you trackers and for conservation. The leopards are spectacular and hopefully I too will one day be able to see these beautiful animals. You and your patner Renias dedicated your life to tracking and we appreciate it.
What a marvelous “trip” back into the (very) old days Alex… Yes, we vividely remember our first stay at Londolozi, staying in one of the four rondavels at Varty Camp (Main Camp at that time), with one single expectation in mind: seeing a leopard. With no success until our very last drive and until Simon Matebula – after tracking on foot for the whole morning – finally found the 3:4 female (a baby at that time…), curled up in the long grass, amid the most intricated bushes… Thanks to Simon, a non-curable addiction started at this very minute. An addiction which never faded away, fueled by other incredibly talented trackers, Ranius, Ehrence, Judas, and many others. Thanks to you Alex, the Tracker Academy has since passed over to younger generations the talent of these legendary heroes. Congratulations and gratitude.
We were lucky to see a leopard in the early 80’s and I’m sure it was due to Renias’s tracking but to be honest I can’t remember..only that it was the first leopard I ever saw at close range! A huge hats off to all the trackers, old and new as their deep connection with nature is second to none. We could all learn a thing or two from them…and not just based on finding the big five…. more the game of life 🙏🏻💕
Beautifully powerful b&w photo of leopard!
Alex, your article was fascinating and so informative about the history of trackers. Your efforts in setting up a tracking academy have truly paid off, giving many young men and the occasional woman the opportunity to develop a career with a job that would change their lives. I’m in awe during each drive at the knowledge and keen eyes of the tracker, noticing a bent leaf that soon led to a animal. Thank you!
What a wonderful piece on the leopard trackers … the natural ‘built-in’ talents of trackers is awe inspiring – they can read tracks and see subtle hints that tell a whole story – like a book. Congratulations to everyone involved!
A remarkable and informative post!
Wow this was something awesome to read. Just imagine all the knowledge those trackers had. It is awesome to see where it started. And how they if I can say “lived” with the leopard’s.
Hats off to all of the Trackers that started this beautiful connection to nature and to those that maintain it to this day. It has allowed us to experience such intimate times with not only the Leopards but all of the wildlife at Londolozi and elsewhere. Pioneers!