It’s not every day your guests ask if you can find them a leopard tortoise… and you actually succeed! To start from the beginning, it had been a hot afternoon in the early days of Spring exploring in the deep southeastern section of the reserve. We had just had a great sighting of the Ntsevu Sub-adults, albeit they were fast asleep in the heat of the afternoon when one of my guests said they would love to look at some of the smaller creatures – I was all for this until he specifically mentioned a leopard tortoise. Knowing that the first rains hadn’t yet arrived and I hadn’t seen a leopard tortoise since last summer I knew the challenge was on.
On we went, with everyone on board keeping their eyes peeled for that blotched black and yellow dome sticking out of the long dry grass. Thinking out loud I mentioned to everyone that with a lot of the vegetation still being quite dry, leopard tortoises are likely to remain relatively inactive until the first rains and new shoots start to blossom. It’s not worth it for the tortoises to expend energy searching for green pastures until the first rains have fallen so they tend to overwinter or go into a state of torpor (lower metabolic rate), although not as extensive as hibernation.
After about half an hour of intent scanning, we were all completely thrown off guard by a wildly unexpected sighting of the Inyathini Male! Yes, the Inyathini Male – after some rangers paid him his dues back in September 2020 accepting that he was now a nomadic male living out his twilight years, I didn’t think I would get a chance to see this infamous male leopard. But there he was, walking gracefully as ever just ahead of us with his scars and battered ears retelling his story without me having to narrate anything to my guests. To Ranger Kyle Gordon, who also couldn’t believe his eyes when he recently had a sighting with the Inyathini Male, he expressed that it was like a leopard had risen from the ashes.
Another leopard who originated in the Kruger National Park, he has established a large territory in the south eastern areas of Londolozi.
What we witnessed next, really took us all by surprise. The Inyatini Male slowed his pace as he started crouching down and sniffing through the grass. Low and behold he had sniffed out a leopard tortoise and completed our search for us… A leopard and a leopard tortoise! We were completely amazed at our luck for the afternoon, unfortunately, this poor little leopard tortoise did not share the same excitement and luck was not on its side. The Inyathini Male promptly lay down and started gnawing away at the carapace (the top shell of the tortoise) to get to his main meal inside.
Leopards are known to be opportunistic hunters, devouring almost anything with flesh on it and the Inyathini Male showed us just how leopards can become even more opportunistic in their older age. While a tortoise’s shell does provide it with shelter and defence against some predators, the shell is essentially comprised of bone, their spine and ribs fused, and covered in scutes which are made of keratin – the same material as our fingernails, this poses no problem for even an old leopards canines to crunch through. Just like tortoises conserve their energy during the dry winter months, the Inyathini Male conserved his energy and took a meal opportunity when he saw one. Although this was certainly nothing my guest could ever have imagined witnessing when they asked to see a leopard tortoise, we were even more enthralled by such a unique sighting.