I love a crisp early morning drive, where the chilly air calls for blankets, jackets and for a pair of warm gloves. On a recent evening, my guests and I had heard the distinctive roar of a male lion just east of our traversing area. We decided that we would head out early in the morning to see if they had crossed west onto our property. As we left camp we quickly realized that we weren’t the only ones with the same idea as there were three other vehicles all looking for any tracks and signs of either the Birmingham male coalition or the Ntsevu pride.
One of the great things about working in a dynamic team of rangers and trackers is that the guests get to witness the teamwork. This involves spreading out and driving on different roads while constantly keeping all the team in the loop on the radio. This would, however, not be possible without the incredible skills of the men that sit upfront on the tracker seats. Let’s just put things into perspective here; the game drive vehicles are driving at approximately 25km/h (16mph) and regardless of the weather conditions, be it before the sun comes up, overcast days or blistering sun, the trackers are able to spot the smallest disturbance in the sandy roads before signalling to the ranger to stop the vehicle.
On this particular morning, tracker Robert Hlatswayo (better known as Prof due to his uncanny ability to remember all the sizes of each animal or bird track we may come across in the bush) quickly put up his hand to signal for me to stop the vehicle. We both jumped off the vehicle and Prof looked at me with the level of excitement you’d expect from someone that had never seen an animal track before, let alone having been in the bush for over 10 years.
“Fresh leopard tracks!”
Change of plans, we’re going to try track and find this leopard.
As Prof and I were scanning the area trying to establish which direction the leopard had gone, we heard some commotion. We looked up and saw two hyenas chasing a third hyena that had blood all over its face. We watched as they, unknowingly, ran straight into a herd of elephants who promptly trumpeted and made the hyenas know that they were not welcome. Prof, as if it was a sixth sense, said to me, “I think those hyenas have robbed a leopard of its kill and now they are fighting over the scraps”.
We decided to go and investigate the area from which the hyenas had come. After no more than 200m down the road we spotted another hyena scuttling off into the bushes. Prof pointed out an area in the sandy road that told the story of many hyenas feeding on some remains of an impala ram. We got off to have a closer look and found evident drag marks in different directions as the hyenas had clearly each taken pieces of the ram and run off into the bush to finish them off. We (mainly Prof) found tracks of the leopardess and we decided that Prof would follow the tracks through a drainage line while I drove around to the other side with the guests. The trackers of Londolozi can not only track one of the most elusive cats in the world on the sandy roads but they also look for other clues, such as the morning dew missing on a specific piece of grass or leaf lying on the ground. As my guests and I were driving off we spotted the skull of the impala ram…we were already excited but this was now tangible proof of what our suspicion had been.
As we raced around to the other side of the drainage, we heard Ranger Robbie Ball call in that he was following tracks of a male leopard near us. We picked Prof up and we continued to follow. After a few hundred meters she had cut off the road and into a thick combretum thicket. Londolozi trackers have what is sometimes referred to as “second sight” where they will abandon tracks and predict where the animal will go. This remarkable skill essentially comes from being in the bush for countless hours trailing animals to the point that they understand the behaviour of specific species as well as specific individuals. Prof turned to me and said, “I have a feeling that she wanted to get far away from those hyenas and elephants and is probably going to go to the clearing atop the crest where she might find some more impala.”
Initially seen as a young male in 2016, this leopard only properly established territory on Londolozi in mid-2019
Without hesitation, we headed directly for the crest. Just as we were coming to the top of the crest, we heard Robbie on the radio, “located the Senegal Bush male!”.
Robbie was no more than a few hundred meters from us so we quickly joined him. As we arrived, we saw him with a hoisted impala ram in the fork of a majestic marula tree. Now remember that we had been tracking a female leopard and this was not her. There was still the unwavering curiosity running through our heads of where she could’ve gone. Prof looked at me and said, “I think the Mashaba female killed this impala and the Senegal Bush male robbed her.” As he said this we saw her stand up at the base of a small grewia.
The Mashaba female is currently Londolozi’s best-known leopard. Her relaxed nature means she is comfortable around the vehicles.
The culmination of piecing together the clues that are left in the bush is often equally as exciting as actually viewing the animal that we track. It takes years of learning and experience as well as a desire to never give up on finding an animal that makes the trackers of Londolozi so incredibly important to the experience that we provide to our guests.