sabi sabi ranger stories

male leopard takes impala up a tree

The winter mornings in the lowveld are a special time of the year in the African bush, one never knows what the morning will bring. The nights are long and the temperature cool. The big cats favour this time of year because there is less energy loss through trying to keep cool. I always thought that the wild animals knew better than we humans when it comes to getting out of a warm bed and going in search for wild animals at six o'clock in the morning. The most magical time of day is the sunrise, I usually ask my guests to sit in absolute silence, as one first observes the bright orange of the early morning sun creeping over the horizon, bringing with it a promise of warmth!

It was colder than it usually gets, I distinctly remember, because I recall seeing frost on an active seep-line. Frost in the lowveld is not very common, it was only my third time that I had observed this phenomenon, having been based in the lowveld for almost 5 years. In the winter months in South Africa and in the region where Sabi Sabi is situated the winter is a very dry time of year. The animals become very dependant on the permanent water sources, as the smaller pans and wallows dry up, leaving the clay hard and cracked like the soles on the feet of a 50 year old bull elephant. The vegetation that sustains them is also dry, brown and lifeless. The majority of the trees are bare, no leaves, no fruit, seemingly just waiting for the rains to return.

The morning safari had proved to be one of good value, as it normally is in this region, a high-density big game area. My guests and I stopped for a leg stretch and coffee break, absorbing the sun's rays and feeling rather reptilian, relying on the external temperature to provide us with energy.

We packed up and promptly headed back in the direction of Bush Lodge, Mike Ndlovu, my Shangaan tracker, suddenly raised his right hand. This was the distinct signal to stop the vehicle, as something had caught Mike’s eagle -sharp eyes. On first inspection we saw what looked like the track of a large fat-bodied snake that had crossed the sandy dirt track we commonly call a road. Mike is a man of very few words, he didn't say anything but I could tell that he was not totally convinced that this was the path of a large bodied snake.

The grass was sparse on the edge of the dirt track, so we decided to walk a few metres into the bush away from the vehicle. Mike raised his index finger, as a school kid would answer a question thrown to the class. At first I thought he was testing wind direction, but he had actually spotted a drop of blood, which was encapsulated in dust particles! The blood was still warm, whatever this was from, was here no longer than 5 -7 minutes ago!

When one tracks a wild animal, one must think and become like a wild animal. We were both thinking on the same plane, we were dealing with the most astute and powerful predator that the African bush can possibly throw at us! We had picked up tracks of a male leopard. If a male leopard decides to throw his weight around it makes an American Pit bull look like a six-week-old Chihuahua. He had killed and was dragging something heavy. I walked a few metres back to the vehicle, grabbed my .458 Winchester Magnum and explained to my guests what we had found. A few meters away Mike was eagerly waiting, like a bloodhound, wanting to be set free on the scent of possible quarry. He wanted to find this cat, for the guests and for himself. When tracking a male leopard on foot it really puts one’s bush skills to the ultimate test. We assured the guests we would return to the vehicle in five minutes.

Mike walked in front, looking at the ground, following the cat’s tracks and drag marks. I was the gun bearer and walked behind him scanning the vegetation up-front. When one is placed in a situation like this the silence is deafening, you can hear yourself breathing, your concentration is so focussed you have nothing else in your mind but finding this 65kg cat that is pound for pound six times stronger than yourself. The track was getting hotter, we found more blood, which was still warm, more tracks and still we walked, the search was on!

We must have been walking for a few minutes, when we heard a rustle in the grass up ahead. We froze, our hearts in our throats, it actually seemed like the beat was between our ears, we could hear our own hearts. After a few minutes we eased up and continued, I wanted to head back to my Land rover, full of guests, but we were close, very, very close. No sooner had that thought rushed through my head when suddenly we heard a scraping of bark from a nearby tree.

We spun in the direction of the noise and thirty metres from us we saw the rippling muscular body of the male leopard. Dangling from his mouth was an adult impala, as he ascended a nearby Marula tree with ease. He had more than likely heard us walking behind him and probably thought we were a couple of hyaenas. In this high density game area competition is fierce between the super predators. The leopard in this area most often hoist their prey high into trees, thus avoiding lion and hyaena from robbing them of a well deserved meal.

Mike and I stared at the male leopard in the tree for a few seconds and promptly started backing out of the area. We headed back to the guests in the Land Rover, they were just as excited as we were. They could tell we had found the big cat before we had even opened our mouths. We decided to wait for approximately 15 minutes before taking the guests to view the male leopard from the safety of a safari vehicle. At Sabi Sabi, the rangers have tremendous empathy towards the wildlife, we wanted the big cat to relax and settle down before being viewed again.

Needless to say when we returned, there was the Impala in the tree but no sign of the leopard. We explained the situation to the guests that the male leopard was probably a little rattled after having been seen on foot by humans. Mike and I were also reluctant to re-track the cat as he had probably seen enough human beings on foot for one day. The Impala was proof of what we had witnessed earlier, we decided to head back to the luxurious Bush Lodge for a well deserved breakfast. We enjoyed a five star meal whilst discussing that we humans are actually very privileged - we don’t have to kill our breakfast and hoist it into a tree!

On the evening Game Drive we went past the same spot and sure enough there was the leopard feeding on his dinner. It could not have been a more exciting day!

By Andre van Zyl

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