Part of my job that I enjoy the most is getting to intimately know individual animals and their stories. We don’t have too much access or time for TV out in the bush, but I feel that we have the best soap opera happening right around and in front of our game vehicles. These stories could not be scripted better with Mother Nature orchestrating a symphony of emotions within an amazing stage that is the African Bushveld.
When I embarked on a career in guiding, my goal was to work in the Sabi Sands. Not only because of its prestigious lodges but also due to the fact that it has one of the highest densities of one of the most elusive members of the Big Five – the leopard.
Like any reality show or soap opera, everyone has their favourite. For me – it’s the leopardess known as the Lisbon female. Leopards are often given their names for a variety of reasons, namely where they were born, where they reside or a characteristic. Lisbon was given her name due to being the dominant female in the Southern section of Sabi Sabi`s property, a farm known as Lisbon. She is approximately 12 years of age successfully raised 2 female cubs to independence.
Leopard identification is done in a variety of ways. The first is the easiest – male or female. Without checking the obvious, it comes down to a question of size. A full grown male leopard will weigh approximately 80-90 kg while a female would be half that at around 40-45 kg. You can also look at obvious characteristics, maybe notches on the ears, scars on the nose, kink in a tail – the list goes on. The most accurate way, if you are lucky enough to get a close look, is at the spot patterns on the top lip, below and both sides of the nose. Like a finger print, these patterns are unique to a particular leopard.
One of the easiest features of Lisbon, is her eyes. She has black marks next to both eyes which gives you the impression that she is wearing mascara. This is quite befitting of this cat as she ensures that she is looking her best for the paparazzi guests while she shows off her moves on the cat walk of the bush.
This is one of the reasons she is my favourite leopardess. She is not seen regularly due to her elusive nature, but when you do see her, photographically she will give you those quintessential leopard shots that we have seen in magazines and publications worldwide. And not just one pose, but many others to ensure that you leave happy, with good photos and a variety of angles.
In the short time that I have seen her, I have witnessed her making kills and being chased off of them by lions, lounging around in Marula trees and on rocky outcrops. We all shared in the joy in seeing her with her new cub in winter last year. The way she proudly brought the 3 month old cub out of her rocky den to introduce us to her legacy, was a moment that I will treasure and never forget.
This euphoria was short lived as we started to find her without her cub. We don’t know what happened to the cub but can only imagine that it met a tragic death, like most leopards of its age. Once the grief had passed, she was stimulated by the primal needs to kill, eat and procreate. We have recently witnessed her mating with the dominant male of the area, the Sandriver male and hopefully if copulation was successful, in a little over 3 months we will witness that moment once again, when she presents her cubs to the world.
It is very hard not to come to Sabi Sabi and not get engrossed in the daily saga of these animals. And like the Lisbon female for me, I’m sure you all have your favourites. These amazing creatures let us have a glimpse of the trials and tribulations, the joys and the sorrows that they themselves experience. This is the stage you want to see them on, not in a zoo or in a hunters prized collection but doing what they do best – living, surviving and adapting to their natural environment.