the return of the king

A lone silhouette silently padded towards us. The backlight from the second vehicle cast an eerie glow around a muscular physique and sand puffed up from under powerful paws as they glided down the road. Sandriver was back. Over a year ago, this mighty specimen was dethroned as the king of the entirety of Sabi Sabi by a younger male we have come to know as Xihangalas; but times have changed. Xihanagalas has not been much over the past few months and news of his absenteeism has been quick to reach the former ruler. No longer did the breeze from the east carry with it the familiar scent and territorial calls of his old adversary as it had done before. The door had been opened and the old warrior did not need a second invite to walk through it.

sandriver leopard at Sabi Sabi

night safari at Sabi Sabi

night safari of leopard at Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve

His posture and attitude said it all. Fearless of any foe that he might meet as he moved deeper into his old territory, stopping to call and scent mark every few hundred meters, there was no doubt that he was making a play for his old domain. The lonely life of a leopard is harsh but Sandriver walked with a confidence that comes from self reliance and he looked good with it. Full belly and velveteen coat left no doubt that he was still at the top of his game, regardless of his one handicap. His blind, opaque right eye glowed like mercury as the powerful spotlight rays glinted off it, a daily reminder of the titanic battle that waged against his younger conqueror all those months ago. The metallic quality, coupled with the aura of authority oozing from him made think of the Terminator movies – a lone warrior whose indestructibility meant that, regardless of superficial injury, he was as efficient a killing machine as ever.

night safari of leopard at Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve

night safari of leopard at Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve

night safari of leopard at Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve

We followed him through the reserve, as he delved deeper into his former territory. His internal GPS seemed to suffer no consequences as at no point did he stop to evaluate his position. A leopard’s knowledge of every inch of his domain is essential: knowing the best hunting grounds and escape routes should he encounter marauding lions on his travels.

night safari of leopard at Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve

Every so often he would stop and cock his head to listen. As we strained to match the acuteness of his hearing, we heard the faint but familiar rasping sound of another leopard in the distance. Sandriver’s pace quickened and his level of territorial activity increased as he made a beeline in the direction of the challenge. He began to drool, saliva hanging from the corners of his mouth, a typical response in leopards to heightened emotions. The smell of his pheromones wafted through the night’s air. Best equated to the smell of popcorn, this aroma contains all the information another leopard needs to evaluate the individual. Routinely he stopped at bushes to wipe glands situated on the side of his face and his paws on to the leaves, leaving no doubt to others that he was back.

Sandriver at Sabi Sabi

Sandriver at Sabi Sabi

Occasionally he lay down to rest, but never for long. There was business to attend to and old scores to settle. The other male’s calls grew louder as he closed in on their location. Silently he drifted across the savanna but a leopard’s instinct never sleeps. As if to prove to us and anyone else watching that his compromised vision did not hinder him, moment’s later his good eye focused on something on the ground close by. In the blink of an eye, his toned legs propelled him through the air as he pounced on a petrified scrub hair. The 75kgs of feline perfection made short work of the snack and the entire hare was dispatched in a few minutes, fur, bones and all. But there was no time to savour the flavour as Sandriver continued his relentless march.

Sandriver with scrub hare at Sabi Sabi

Sandriver on night safari at Sabi Sabi

night safari of leopard at Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve

Time was against us however and forced us to return to Bush Lodge, salivating at the prospect of what we might find the next day. We know that the calls heard by the old king were coming from the Mahlathini male and only time will tell if Sandriver’s confidence and experience will be enough to subdue to new sovereign of the north, or whether youthful self belief will be enough to keep the old campaigner at bay. For those of us who have been at Sabi Sabi for a while, to see Sandriver’s return was a real treat. It just goes to show that nothing in nature is finite and that the dynamics of territories and dominance are not set in stone. Whilst we revel in change, a large part of me wants to see Sandriver’s empire return to its former glory and I cannot wait to witness to no doubt turbulent struggles that will accompany it!

by: Ben Coley (Bush Lodge Ranger)


  1. doris charles says

    Getting to be king of the leopards, never heard of him is he new on Sabi, very interesting great photos thank you for sharing. Regards Doris

  2. linda says

    Interesting piece, Ben. I have noticed the other male Xinghenagalas (or the Bike as I know him) has been up north having some major fights with Camp Pan Male. I personally admire Sand river male. He is the lovely father to my favourite two young males, the Selati male/Mandla and Bushlodge/Balabas/Dayone male leopard (now up in Northern Western SS making a name for himself).

  3. annlyn says

    Ben, beautifully written. I do hope you will keep track of him and continue to keep us informed. He is a stunning looking leopard and the photographs are magnificent! He looks to be a large leopard and I guess at your guesstimate of 75kgs he really is big. Thanks for this.

  4. mj bradley says

    What a wonderful narrative! It is always nice to see an old warrior return.. I hope he gets to live his glory days one more time!

    Thank you for sharing Ben.

  5. alessio says

    Great job! A legend of leopard the Sand River male, this is the kind of leopard that is an absolute incomparable plan of perfection, well sayd.
    What kind of camera you used for this fantastic specimen of leopard?

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