Finding a leopard den and the excitement and rewards that may come with it – is unfathomable. There is something incredibly humbling about being in the presence of a mother leopard as she naturally goes about caring for her young, helpless and invariably cute cubs. The privilege to know that one of the most elusive animals in the world trusts us enough to reveal her cubs to us is something that words struggle to do any justice.
As we sit, looking on from a distance, the mother is as calm and collected as can be. The cubs, being viewed for the very first time are still unsure of us and not sure whether to trust us. Any slight movement sends them scurrying back into the safety of a deep rock crevice. But sure enough, with time and patience, their inquisitive nature and with a little prompting from their mother, the fluffy faces reveal themselves. Allowing us a little insight into the undying love a mother has for her young. The entire vehicle is perplexed for the entire time, as the little leopard family goes about their daily business.
But the process is not as simple as just stumbling across a leopard den and having everything work out for you. This often takes time, dedication, and the ability to not let failure bring you down. Which I had to overcome numerous times during the search for the Nhlanguleni Female leopard’s den.
Initially skittish she spent a lot of time in the Sand River, now relaxed she makes up the majority of leopard viewing west of camp.
Where to begin?
After returning from leave, I was informed by a few of the rangers that they had recently seen the Nhlanguleni Female with a very loose belly and what looked to be suckle marks. All clear signs that she had most likely given birth to another litter of cubs.
This was brilliant news to be welcomed back by, however, it meant very little as the Nhlanguleni Female can prove to be very challenging to find. A large majority of her time is spent in the Sand River in areas that are inaccessible with a vehicle. When not in the river, the surrounding areas in her territory are tricky to track leopards as the blocks between roads are large and the vegetation is thick.
Our only hope of finding her and in turn, the den, was to systematically drive all the roads in the area hoping to find some tracks of her. While driving the roads it was worth also checking all the previous dens that she had used in the past. Leopard mothers often reuse the same dens. This approach was a bit of a gamble but we had very little to go with, so we had no other option apart from searching every nook and cranny in every cluster of boulders or flood debris throughout her territory, which of course we were not going to do.
In three of the most recent sightings of the Nhlanguleni Female, she was very close to camp leading us to believe that she may be denning somewhere nearby. But this was not enough evidence to point us in any particular direction. The density of prime potential den sites within her territory is so high that we wouldn’t even know where to start. Determined to find her and her den we were going to stop at nothing and as with everything in life hard work often pays off.
So each consecutive game drive would see us zig-zagging along every road at a snail’s pace searching for tracks, checking the previously used dens starting with the ones closer to camp first then working further and further afield.
After just under a week of absolutely no sign in the area, motivation dwindling, I found steaming hot tracks walking straight down the road. The catch- it was after sunset and I could only follow them for a short while. Tracks headed in both directions up and down the road. Having a suspicion that she may be denning in the middle channel of the Sand River, Pat Grealy, and I headed out early the next morning to see what we could find. Robbie Ball and Trevor Makakule joined us in our search.
We conceded to the fact that she was denning in the middle channel, with no vehicle access. I would still go through the area every day with the odd chance that she may be around resting on the riverbed for us to see.
Another painful thirteen nights went by with no sign until I followed further tracks to a den that she has previously used nearby. Sitting there with an impaired view of some boulders I suddenly heard what sounded like at least two cubs from within the cluster. We had found the den! But there was absolutely no view of the mother or the cubs. The only evidence I had was this…
With no view of the leopards, I held on to the hope that the mother will at some point get up and leave the den. Well after a long three-hour wait, I’ll tell you, she didn’t leave the den. Heading back to camp, emotions were running high, in one sense elated with the news that she had moved the cubs and we knew where the den was, but in another sense somewhat deflated that we had yet to lay eyes on the cubs.
Five days later, while sitting in the office deep in post-production of some footage, I heard the news that ranger Jess Shillaw had just seen the Nhlanguleni Female carrying a cub to a new den. Pandemonium broke out in the office as I scrambled to get everything ready without wasting any time while shouting to the others in the office,
“Jess has just seen the Nhlanguleni Female moving her cub, I am going! Anyone that is keen to join, we’re leaving RIGHT NOW!”
With a pinpoint description from Jess of exactly where to find the new den, I was eager to document the situation and hopefully get some footage of the newest addition to the Sunsetbend Lineage and the Leopards of Londolozi. And boy did we get what we bargained for. It was a particularly warm morning and rapidly approaching midday but we were prepared to endure the heat, meanwhile, in order to seek out some essential shade, the Nhlanguleni Female was making it even more difficult for us to see her and the cub.
Over and above wanting to see this cub, my underlying determination to wait it out stemmed from the belief that there was still another cub left in the old den, that, with a bit of luck and patience, I had a feeling the Nhlanguleni Female would at some point make a mission to go and collect.
Word simply cannot describe the feeling of being able to witness this. The hard work and patience eventually paid off. Something I have learnt over time in this role is to trust your gut instinct and allow yourself to be patient. By simple racing around trying to see many different things, you end up short-changing yourself from what could turn out to be phenomenal sightings. Spending time with animals allows you a glimpse into their lives and what better lives to peak into than a mother leopard and two amazing little leopard cubs.