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Leopards Galore

Seeing a leopard in the wild is an experience most people will never forget. Not only because they are such beautiful animals, but due to their elusive nature and Big 5 status, they are placed high up on most ‘safari-goers’ list of animals to see. Their ability to disappear deep into bushes and shy nature means that you have to count yourself extremely lucky to get a glimpse of these spotted cats. 

On the flip side of the coin you get the Leopards of Sabi Sands (and other Greater Kruger reserves). Their ‘rules’ are slightly different to your average leopard. Yes they are wild, but you would not say that they are such elusive creatures as they are said to be. They are even given names, which are used internally between guides and trackers and on social media platforms. Some of them have become famous on social media and are followed on a daily basis. I guess you can call it a “Bush Soap Opera” of some sort. 

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One of the most famous and well known Leopards that roamed the Sabi Sands was the Nottins female. She was also known as the New Nottens female or the Piva female in other reserves.

These leopards (or at least most of them) are accustomed to vehicles and the ‘funny’ sounds (Homo sapiens, camera shutters and an internal combustion engine) that comes from it. It’s not rare to see a leopard marching along the roads marking its territory with a couple of safari vehicles following suit. At times you may have a leopard sleeping a few feet away from the safari vehicle or even in the shade of the vehicle on a hot day. I personally had a big male leopard sleep under my vehicle on an extremely hot day!

Some leopards also frequent lodges, and are seen taking gingerly strolls past guest suites at night time. The most special trait of these leopards in my opinion is that most females are not shy of showing us their cubs. Numerous reserves around the Sabi Sands often enjoy sightings of cubs, and at times the mother leopards don’t mind the presence of a vehicle at the den site, as long as they are given a lot of space and safari vehicles are limited at any given time.

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Tortilis male, just a few months old, pauses before crossing the road to get to where his mom is. Because this was a main access road in the area, the safari vehicle in the background blocked the entire road so that the leopard cub could cross safely.

During a morning safari back in January 2015, the Leopards had provided us with a sighting that we will never forget! The beginning of the story is what I had gathered over the radio chatter as the guides in the sightings were discussing what was going on at the time, and from speaking to some of the guides that were in the sightings before and after I had been there. 

It had started off with a sub-adult male leopard called Tortilis guarding an impala kill up a Marula tree. The impala was killed by his mom, the Warthog Wallow female the night before, but had not been seen during this morning. A bit later the radio chatter increased as a second male leopard, Maxabeni, a much more powerful male and the territorial male of the area had entered the scene. He had smelt the kill, and like any other predator, would not pass the opportunity of a free meal. Maxabeni had seen the young male leopard, whom to our knowledge was not Maxabeni’s son (but rather Maxabeni’s nemesis, Mahlatini’s son), and so he chased the young male far up the tree, trying to attack him as it’s common for territorial male leopards to attack and sometimes even kill intruding younger males that are not their offspring. Eventually Maxabeni settled on the lower branches with the kill, while young Tortilis was left stranded on the smaller branches high up the tree.

I finally got my turn to get into the sighting with my guests, and as we got sight of the Marula tree, Maxabeni could be seen resting close to the kill, but it wasn’t until I had told my guests to look up that they actually realised that there were two leopards up the tree. There was also a Spotted Hyaena that was lurking around the tree, but it didn’t get much attention as all eyes were focused up the tree.

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Maxabeni guarding the kill, while Tortilis watches from above.

While we sat and observed these two leopards, not too far away some of the guides and guests were enjoying a leopard and cub sighting. The great thing about this, was that they were walking straight towards our sighting. We sat anxiously, waiting for the two new leopards to arrive, as the guides kept on updating us with their whereabouts on the radio. Finally in a distant tree we saw the Nottins female’s male cub jumping across the branches of another Marula tree and Nottins walking below. They both made their way towards the tree with Maxabeni and Tortilis. Nottins was not at all concerned about Maxabeni coming into contact with her cub as she knew Maxabeni would not harm the cub as this cub was his offspring.

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Nottin's cub in a distant Marula tree. The tree in the foreground is the tree with Maxabeni and Tortilis.
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A nervous looking Tortilis as he keeps an eye out on Maxabeni below.
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Maxabeni dosing off, without a care in the world as he knows that Tortilis won't risk stealing back the kill or climbing down the tree with him blocking the way down.

As Nottins relaxed in some bushes below the Marula tree, her cub made a few attempts to get up the tree and to the carcass. It was more playful behaviour rather than hunger driven. Maxabeni was not entirely content with giving up his stolen meal, and growled as the cub tried climbing up the tree. 

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Nottin's cub reversing back down the tree as Maxabeni growls at him from above.
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Three of the four leopards in one photograph. Tortilis on top, Maxabeni in the middle and Nottin's cub below. Nottins is not in the frame as she was hiding in the bushes just behind her cub.

After witnessing all this action, we decided to move on and allow other vehicles to enter the sighting, as only a limited amount of vehicles can be in a sighting at any given time. Soon after we had left, Nottin’s cub attempted to climb the tree again and succeeded. The cub managed to get to the kill after giving Maxabeni a swat to the head.

When it was time for afternoon safari, we were all excited to go back to the site to see what has played out and if Tortilis was still stranded. But to everyones amazement, not a single leopard was found, and the hyaena was also nowhere to be seen. The kill up the tree had also disappeared!

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My favourite photograph that I managed to capture during the sighting. Nottin's cub gazing up the tree before making his first attempt at feeding on the kill.

The beauty of working as a safari guide is that you just never know what’s in store for you as you leave the lodge for game drive. Animals are very unpredictable, and no two sightings are ever the same! 

 

Pravir Patel

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