“Habituation” – with regards to animals, habituation is a form of non-associative learning in which an animal’s innate response to a stimulus decreases after repeated or prolonged presentations of that stimulus.
A well referred to term here at Londolozi, habituation refers to the process of gradually acclimating wild animals to the presence of humans and Land Rovers, and minimizing their fear response. This process is particularly important for elusive and potentially dangerous species.
I’ve been thinking about this term (well, the whole concept of habituation) quite a lot recently and thought I would unpack what it means and represents to us at Londolozi; as South Africans; and for us all as global ambassadors for wildlife conservation.
One of two cubs to survive, the sister lost at five months. Still dependent on his mother, but is growing into an impressive young male.
Tourism and Education
The notorious “Big Five” species are a major attraction for tourists visiting this reserve. Habituated lions and leopards are more likely to be visible and approachable, providing guests with the opportunity to observe these magnificent animals in their natural habitat. This not only enhances the overall tourism experience but also fosters a greater understanding and appreciation for wildlife conservation amongst all of us privileged to view them.
A single cub of the Ximungwe Female's second litter. Initially rather skittish but is very relaxed now. Birth mark in his left eye.
Moreover, this fragile relationship between man and animal in a protected area like the Sabi Sand Nature Reserve ultimately contributes to the significant source of revenue that tourism brings into South Africa. Having habituated leopards can attract more tourists, leading to increased revenue that can then be reinvested into conservation initiatives, community development, and anti-poaching efforts. And I believe Londolozi is no better ambassador in this regard – simply take a look at our most recent initiative: the Londolozi Ripple Fund.
Research and Monitoring
Being able to view animals regularly in a non-invasive manner allows us to bare witness to their natural behaviours and daily dynamics. That being said, even our observations of these animals only gain us access to a snippet of their daily lives, as Dan describes in his blog on How much time do we actually spend with animals? So the more relaxed predators become with the vehicle and presence of human observation, the more likely we’ll be able to view them for longer periods of time (depending on the circumstance and terrain of the sighting, of course).
Even though we are not with these animals every minute of every day, viewing relaxed animals means they can be monitored more closely by researchers and conservationists, ultimately contributing to more detailed behavioural studies, population assessments and/or health monitoring.
For example, above and beyond Londolozi’s personal story with its leopards, we share all our ‘data’ on these animals (data on all large predators) with a global organization called Panthera. This organization is devoted to the research and conservation efforts of 40 wild cat species around the world, providing valuable insight into their ecology, social structures, hunting behaviours and interactions with other species.
Initially seen as a young male in 2016, this leopard only properly established territory on Londolozi in mid-2019
Human-Wildlife Conflict Mitigation
There is no denying that inhabiting a region where local communities and wildlife share the same environment has the potential to lead to possible conflict. Habituated predators, which are more accustomed to human presence, may be less likely to view humans as immediate threats, reducing the likelihood of aggressive encounters and retaliatory actions by humans.
That being said, the wilderness is unpredictable and we’re constantly reminded of this fragile balance when we get to view a lioness walking across the Sand River boulders in front of one of the camp decks or to see tracks of a leopard in the car park before we have even set out on our morning game drive. There is so much beauty and magic in being able to share the same environment with these animals – but it depends on so much reverence, awareness and a deep understanding of each species.
Conservation Messaging and Long-term Protection
The original viewable leopard of Londolozi, if not Africa. In 1979 this leopard appeared as if by magic, allowing vehicles to view her.
Since the Mother Leopard in 1979, Londolozi has been at the forefront of raising awareness about the importance of protecting these animals and their habitats. Through the tracking and personal journeys of each of these animals, we as the observers have become connected to their story, and their lives – thanks to the relaxed nature in which these animals have allowed us to view them.
This is a powerful tool that goes beyond just your safari experience; it enables us to hopefully gain further support for preserving our natural ecosystems and their wildlife for future generations.
A gorgeous female who is found to the east of camp. Easily recognised by her 2:2 spot pattern she is often to be found in Marula trees.
What I feel particularly proud about is the fact that the process of habituation is continuous, and even though we may be viewing generations of leopards here at Londolozi (thanks to the efforts carried out by guides and trackers that have come before us), it is not something our current team take for granted. A lack of reverence or improper practices can very easily reverse future animal dynamics or lead to negative behavioural changes or stress. With this in mind, we strive to prioritise the sensitivity around these animals while viewing them. Constantly reviewing how we operate and manage ourselves as a team to ensure that the animals thrive in this wilderness and we get to view them in a natural state as possible.
So, when you are on your next visit on safari and sitting in the back of one of our Land Rovers, just know that you are, in more ways than one, an active participant in a much greater effort in conservation. How lucky are we!