Right from the get-go, I have felt particularly fond of the Ximungwe Young Male. He was the very first leopard cub I ever saw. Not only was that first glimpse of him a moment I will never forget. Watching him grow and learn new skills under the patient guidance of his mother over the last year and a half is something quite extraordinary to have been a part of. There were moments of pure joy and entertainment as he uncoordinatedly gripped his way up a marula tree as a young cub. To clumsily falling out of bushwillow trees and finally to mastering a graceful leap up into an enormous jackelberry tree.
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Then there were the heart-wrenching moments when he narrowly escaped from a hyena as his mother came to save the day.
Or when he would drop a hard-earned hoisted kill his mother had made into the patiently waiting jaws of a hyena below. And to be honest, all of these moments have become such special memories as I was able to share the moments of anticipation and excitement with my tracker Bennet Mathonsi, the rest of the guiding and tracking team, and of course our guests.
A single cub of the Ximungwe Female's second litter. Initially rather skittish but is very relaxed now. Birth mark in his left eye.
At the beginning of September, I was driving guests who mentioned that they had seen the Ximungwe Young Male on their first trip to Londolozi in September 2021 and were eager to see how he had progressed since then. So we set out on their first morning drive with one goal in mind – track and find the Ximungwe Female and now nearly independent 18-month-old ‘cub’. Knowing that at the beginning of August, the Ximungwe Young Male had already outgrown his mother and she was becoming reluctant to share meals with her son, we were in for a challenge. But one we were up for!
Not long into our drive, we were bouncing with excitement as we found fresh tracks of what we assumed were the Ximungwe Duo. Although the tracks were going up and down the road and all over at first, we knew we were onto something. We quickly realised that this was only the beginning of what would be yet another test of patience, skill, and determination. Trackers Bennet Mathonsi, Tshepo Dzemba, and Sersant Sibuya followed the tracks carefully to make sure they hadn’t missed any signs, while us rangers, kept driving around the area in search of any other signs of them. Scanning the long grass and up in the trees hoping to spot one or both of them.
At one point, close to two hours into the search, we all ended up at the same point with the trackers, all perplexed now as to where they could possibly be hiding. Starting to wonder if it might just be one of those days the leopards were walking circles around us and continuing with their day undetected. Only moments later did we hear Bennet give off a familiar whistle that we all knew was the good news we had been waiting for. Not even 5o meters from where we had all congregated, Bennet had found a hoisted kill!
This was brilliant news as the likelihood of the leopards being around was extremely high. Dashing into the vehicles the excitement was palpable. As we drove into where the carcass was we spotted the Ximungwe Female lying in the long grass a little further away from the carcass. Although we didn’t have a clear view of her the feelings of elation that we had finally found her were evident on the grins across everyone’s faces. This was still however the beginning of an exciting sequence of events to unfold.
Having been viewed by vehicles from an early age, this leopard is supremely relaxed around Land Rovers.
Before we could even wonder where the now not-so-young male leopard may be and if his mother would still share this kill with him, she started giving off a low growl as he appeared from behind the bushes. Whether it was the positive manifestations or determination and patience of the team we had found the Ximungwe duo!
We positioned ourselves as best we could to get an unobscured view of the mother and son lying a few meters apart in the long grass. Hoping one of them would soon move towards the young bushbuck carcass to start feeding. While we waited, we had a chance to reflect on the life of this young male leopard from when my guests had last seen him at roughly six months old. Playing and grooming with his mother to now, a little more hostile scene between the duo as he edges closer to his independency.
After a cup of coffee in the vehicle, our patience was once again rewarded when the young male finally stood up, walked right past us, and revealed a second kill, a bushbuck ewe hidden under a guarri bush. The young male then used one of the many life skills his mother has been teaching him and scraped up some grass over the kill to mask the scent that may attract any lurking scavengers. This reminded us of how far he has come from the days when he would try to manoeuvre a kill while feeding up in a tree only to watch it tumble to the ground and be stolen by the ever-efficient hyena patiently waiting for that exact moment.
As the morning wore on, we decided that we had exceeded our goal of not only finding the Ximungwe duo but been captivated by the anticipation of tracking them, eventually finding them, and then spending some quality time watching them engage with each other, albeit not in the same loving way as they were just a few months ago as a naturing mother with a young cub.
That afternoon, we couldn’t resist but to go and see what had transpired throughout the day. We were able to witness an incredible display of the Ximungwe Young Male’s now-mastered skills of gracefully leaping up into the Jackelberry while carrying the remaining portion of the bushbuck ewe. Securing this hard-earned meal from any scavenging hyenas as the sunset approached. All the while his mother kept a watchful eye over his movements, and we couldn’t help but wonder if she was now satisfied with her own hard work and patience in successfully raising her cub to independence.
I can’t help but wonder if that was the last time we will track and find the Ximungwe Duo together as they share a kill. At least it appears that way for now. Since then the Ximungwe Young Male has been seen exploring further south into the rocky train of the Tugwaan riverbed, where we suspect he has been attempting to hunt larger prey on his own. His mother, on the other hand, has continued to showcase her dominance and experience as ranger Patrick Grealy witnessed a brief altercation with the Nhlanguleni Female and on yet another successful hunt, although this time the young male was nowhere to be seen.
What really stands out to me is not only was this the first leopard cub I ever laid eyes on but that I have had the privilege of being able to watch him grow from that first glimpse to an independent young male leopard. Throughout his journey I have kept a personal journal of each sighting I have had with the Ximungwe Duo, totalling 33 sightings over the last 16 months, and while I could get lost telling stories over which was my favourite sighting, it is being apart of all these sightings and sharing them with others that have been a true highlight for me.