Currently under national Covid-19 lockdown, it has provided me with the opportunity to go through all my old images from years ago and relive some very special moments that I have been privileged to witness during my time out in the field as a guide.
Going through all my photos, I found myself stopping and looking more and more at a particular leopardess. I sat for over an hour reminiscing and remembering about some quality time with this beautiful cat.
This leopardess is possibly my favourite leopard I have ever been fortunate enough to spend quality time with. The first time I ever saw her she was about 8 weeks old, a little bundle of fluffy fur and beautiful blue eyes. She had a sibling which unfortunately went missing one evening. Cubs will normally be taken to kills by their mother from about ten to twelve weeks of age. On this occasion, the mother was seen with a fresh kill along a drainage line in the afternoon and was left heading back to fetch her cubs as darkness began to set in.
On arrival to the scene where the mother had stashed her kill, sadly there was only one cub left. What happened to the other cub? Her sibling at some point in the evening went missing and tit'd be impoassible to say for certain what might have happened, although we may be able to speculate that they could have had a run in with another predator.
Over time I got to see this young leopard in many different scenarios, the most notable of which was being chased by a hyena up a tree at only a couple of months old, climbing to the very top of the tree, terrified!
It happened on a morning drive and, upon returning in the afternoon, she was still in the same position. The hyena eventually left and it took a lot of coaxing down by the mother for her to eventually come down and relax.
I could tell, from a young age that this was a very special cat. Being an ''only child'' she had to learn to enjoy her own company, to always be vigilant, and this obviously left her in good stead when she got older. By nature leopards are solitary, shy and elusive cats. Being left on her on for a day even some times two days at a time while her mother was out patrolling territory and hunting to keep them both alive, she had to learn everything herself - what is dangerous, what isn't dangerous, how to hunt, what to hunt, basically she had to learn how to be a leopard. She had to do all this while trying to stay safe.
It was really a privilege for me seeing this young fur ball develop and grow each time I saw her. As the months went by, we could all see that this was no ordinary cat, she was exactly what a leopard should be (yes that sounds silly) but we could see her developing her skills, behavioural changes and growing in confidence.
I remember the morning I spent with this female (image above) so clearly. We were driving down a drainage line when my tracker asked me to stop and turn off the vehicle. In the distance up ahead we could hear monkeys alarm calling and going crazy, we knew there must be something in the area...
Starting the vehicle, we headed directly to where the noise was coming from, we could see the monkeys in the tree all alarming and looking to the floor. As we turned the corner there she was, just sitting watching the monkeys. Now, normally when a leopard has been detected they try and move out the area as they don't like the attention and it may lead to other predators coming to investigate all the commotion, but this female sat for about five to ten minutes watching the trees...
What happened next surprised us all.
She leaped into the tree, jumping from branch to branch, it was absolutely incredible to see how acrobatic and at home she felt in the tree. She climbed right to the top and down again and back up and down again, she had a plan. She was chasing monkeys from branch to brach until she finally cornered one and caught it! This was a bitter sweet moment for me, she surely had made other kills before, but this was the first kill I saw her make and it marked the end of her cub life and the beginning of her becoming an independent leopard.
Leopards are fortunate in that their diets vary so much, being a solitary animal, they will catch anything from mice and lizards to impala and everything in between.
This young leopard showed us that morning that she was ready she was independent and ready to move out from under her mothers protection. Her mother shortly after this, gave up a portion of her territory for this young leopard as a starting point to beginning her solitary adult life.
Another bitter sweet moment was seeing this young female come into season and sent mark on her territorial patrol as she marked out her territory but also left a calling card for any of the males in the are that she was ready to mate. Her territory was split between two properties. One morning my tracker and I decided to drive along the Sand river and the boundary line looking for any signs of her after not having seen her for a number of days... Having driven almost the entire length of the river, my tracker once again put up his hand, I stopped the vehicle, got out and started walking to the front of the vehicle, my tracker then said to me - there are tracks for two leopards here, a male and a small female, as you can imagine I was instantly filled with excitement!
While discussing the tracks and the direction they went, we heard the two leopards growling not to far from where we were, we quickly jumped back in the car and drove off road in the direction of the noise. On arrival, we found the big dominant male of the area and yes you guessed it this beautiful young leopardess, they were mating!
This was just before I left the bush and my full time guiding career to move on and start with Wild Eye. What I take out of all this sitting here today and looking back at these images, is how incredibly lucky I was to have spent the time in the bush and to have been able to share a large chunk of this leopards life, from her being a couple of weeks old all the way through to adulthood, I feel extremely privileged and these are all memories I will hold for the rest of my life...
Until next time,