Vigil

The wildlife estate’s dominant female leopardess downed a young nyala bull in a homeowners garden, he is a friend of mine and well aware of the leopard ID project that I action. Shortly after receiving Paul’s message I was on my bike. Upon my arrival I greeted Paul and his family then thanked them for alerting me, a brief investigation revealed two sets of leopard spoor, a youngster and an adult female, I speculated at the time that it may be the resident female (Kulua) and her female cub (Mbilu), the male cub (Mandla) is far more independent. A large portion of the deceased animal’s rump had been consumed, however the stomach contents were yet to be discarded. Kulua took advantage of an opportunity, however her options to drag the animal away were heavily hindered by its weight as well as the urban settlement around her, this small patch of vegetation gave the leopards sanctuary to feed.

My main priorities were to respect the families privacy whilst trying to ensure the leopards did not lose their kill to ravenous warthogs during the daylight hours. Paul and I brush packed the carcass and then formulated a plan for the evening hours. I have run the project for almost two years and the data strongly suggests these particular peri-urban leopards have a healthy fear of humans and are almost exclusively nocturnal in their traversing of the estate, thus I was convinced the cats would only return under the cover of darkness. I noted a three foot perimeter fence that would serve as a barrier between my vehicle and the leopards, perhaps improving their level of comfort with my presence. The fence was situated a reasonable distance from the kill which aided my endeavour to place minimal pressure on the cats. Paul had no issue with my plan as it wouldn’t intrude on his families personal space. Soon after Paul left the scene I continued to investigate and noticed that the leopardess had used the small fence as cover whilst stalking her quarry.

I headed home and entered into negotiations with my wife, the outcome of which was vague but most acceptable, Katie had agreed to join me on this outing for an indefinite period of time, however I would bring her home should the waiting become significantly arduous. Kulua is a very intelligent leopard and an incredible mother, which likely meant she would wait us out.

I popped out at last light to remove the brush and double check all was in order before returning home for Katie. Armed with a thermal monocular, spotlight, supplies for sustenance, mosquito repellant and a DSLR we wheeled our way to the spot.

And so the vigil began….

I was silly enough to forget the camera bean bag so Katie folded her scarf on the windowsill behind my drivers seat and rested the monocular on top of it. This thermal device has proven invaluable when trying to observe animals whose very livelihood depends on not being seen. I found the constant use of a spotlight ineffective and a little too intrusive. The wildlife estate was particularly festive, light and noise pollution relentlessly surrounded us and this elevated my great admiration for a leopards ability to survive in small pockets of wilderness as well as drift from one pocket to the next almost entirely undetected.

An eternity passed before a diminutive ghost emerged through the thicket behind the kill, her warmth lit up the monocular,  we sat silently and hopeful, however it was not to be as she padded away into the darkness. Katie manned the heat sensor and managed to view the youngsters movements until a deafening exhalation of air emanated from the Jeep’s back right air suspension bag. What ridiculous circumstance, needless to say the leopard ran for its life and I, much like our air suspension bag, was left deflated. My wife gathered herself as her reaction was similar to the leopards, thankfully she did not flee from the vehicle but chose to bounce around in it. Katie is an eternal optimist and she soon helped me overcome my great irritation. Thankfully I later found out that Paul and his family were uninterrupted.

More time passed and now the moonlit sky made visibility a little better, we picked up on a larger leopard stalking the dead, her luminescence inaudibly cut through the thickets and long grass, to our surprise the bone crunching began. Kulua had waited us out for hours and finally decided she was happy to feed with us about, as for her daughter, I half expected her to be in another province after the earlier debacle. Villiers Steyn aka The Safari Expert spent four years in Botswana’s Northern Tuli Game Reserve completing a thesis on leopard movements and density. He has always said that shy animals certainly have greater potential to relax at night, in this instance we had the added advantage of food!

‘She is very relaxed Owen, I’ll turn on the spotlight and you get the photos to be sure it is her,’ Katie said. I cautiously lifted the camera whilst Katie shone the light away from Kulua and slowly moved it towards her in an effort not to startle the predator. In that moment this remarkable cat had far greater interest in her meal and I was able to get a dozen or so photos before lights out, with her blind right eye as a distinctive feature my suspicions were confirmed.

Kulua lifted her head and began to growl, ‘ Is that at us?’ I asked Katie, ‘ I am not sure,’ she responded. Kulua looked to her left and we followed suit, another leopard! It took a life time but Mbilu had plucked up the courage to appear, there was a light chuff as she trotted onto the stage, Kulua had no interest in sharing but decided not to slap around the brazen youngster and made her exit.

I’ve had many a conversation about leopard behaviour but nothing beats witnessing it, Mbilu is over one year old now and becoming somewhat of a nuisance to the elder, yet her mother still has the instinct to provide. The glimpses I have had into this particular dynamic have been highly informative, Mandla began moving on his own at a young age and is finding his own meals, Mbliu always follows her mother’s lead, this petite female is observant and calculating.  Skills she will certainly hone as she fights to survive in a shrinking natural environment. Mbilu had her fill and moved off which was our cue to limp the Jeep home whilst revelling in what we had observed during a MEGA sighting.

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