The morning started with a search for the Ndzandzeni Female, a gorgeous elder leopard that has set up territory in the South-easternmost corner of the reserve. A search for this female can be very much a hit or miss affair and given that it’s quite a trek to get into the area one has to be prepared (or more prepared than usual, should I say) to come up with snake-eyes when rolling the dice on searching for this particular female.
This female is a success story all in herself, being born as a single cub to the Dudley Riverbank female in early 2012.
But given that she is the last of the Royal Lineage, the last surviving independent female descendant of the original Mother Leopard, as well as the fact that she has two ~9 month old cubs, it makes that risk of failure all the more worth it.
The Mother Leopard was a female that was found in 1979 and one that John Varty and tracker Elmon Mhlongo spent years tracking and habituating to vehicle and human presence. In so doing, these two men pioneered the habituation process that would serve to provide us all with the incredible leopard viewing that we are privileged enough to have in our little piece of Paradise.
Three teams took up the challenge that fateful day; Andrea Sithole & Sersant Sibuyi, Barry Bath & Tshepo Dzemba, and Myself & Prof Hlatshwyo; three brave duos ready to risk seeing absolutely nothing for the chance to bear witness to a potentially magnificent sighting. There was a slight nervous tension between the three of us but, as ever, knowing that two other teams have skin in the game is always reassuring and we set out with a fair conviction that we’d emerge victorious that day.
Two and half hours later and that conviction was waning. Spirits had been dampened somewhat by what was seeming more and more to be a fruitless endeavour. Trackers had been left on foot early on following fairly promising spoor, that had been at least an hour ago. The usual haunts had been scoured clean in our search for any sign and we all knew we were scraping the bottom of the barrel. Ranger Andrea Sithole injected some much-needed humour into the situation as he called out to me in passing, “Don’t worry, I’ll speak to my ancestors” and we all prepared to throw out one more hail-mary check along the lesser frequented roads in the area.
And lo and behold, ladies and gentlemen, Andrea’s ancestors came to the fore! 5 minutes after parting ways with the man and while I was crawling along a thicket line begging my eyes to find their way across a spot-patterned shadow, the radio crackled to life, “Kyle and Barry, I’ve located” came the blessed words across the airwaves, “it looks like she’s been robbed! There’s a male in a tree here and she’s at the base.”
Another leopard who originated in the Kruger National Park, he has established a large territory in the south eastern areas of Londolozi.
Both Barry and I were no more than 3 minutes away and, scooping up our trackers en route, we swiftly arrived on the scene. In the end, we only had a very brief glimpse of the female as she settled herself into a thick patch of grass nearby, but by this point, the major attraction had become the male in the tree; the Inyathini Male reincarnate, a ghost come back to life! The last time I had personally seen this male was in November of 2020. I couldn’t believe my eyes and actually argued with the other rangers, there was no way he was back, surely not?! But in the end, I had to acquiesce, there was no one else it could possibly be, the Inyathini Male was back in town, at least temporarily.
And with his arrival at this particular moment in time came a very big question; we could see the Ndzandzeni Female, yes… But where are the cubs? Are they ok? In a situation like this, one can become understandably nervous that something untoward could have happened. Our fears were allayed in part later that morning when another ranging team managed to glimpse the female and one cub making their way over our Eastern boundary. But thereafter, it took over a week and a half before the other half of the question was answered and we could definitively say that both cubs had survived the interaction and were alive and well!
And here I must note that yes, we are supposed to be merely passive observers and accept that this is the wild and this kind of thing does happen all the time… But it’s hard to not let some part of you become attached, especially after watching 2 cubs survive their first 9 months of life, against all the odds. They’ve still a long way to go, sure, but I know I’m going to be keeping a keen eye on them all the way through.