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.