sabi sabi ranger stories

it's raining cats

The mark of a good ranger is the ability to interpret the animal behaviour and movement, then communicate this behaviour to his or her guests. Not to be over looked, is the ability of the ranger to find ones own game. The most difficult of the higher profile game species to locate, is definitely the leopard!

On this particular morning the weather was overcast and drizzling, we had departed from the lodge an hour previously. In the summer months it is very seldom that it gets cold, even though it can get very wet. The cooler weather often bringing with it a temporary relief from the scorching hot lowveld summer days. I always find it fascinating how the animal's behaviour changes in wet, cooler weather conditions. The impala herds normally taking shelter under the canopy of trees with broad leaves, normally motionless, the only movement coming from their dainty triangular mouths as they chew the cud. The various other antelope species, such as kudu, bushbuck, nyala and duiker preferring to stay well concealed in the various thickets that are available to them. The nocturnal super predators, lion and leopard normally remain active for longer periods in these cooler weather conditions. Due to the lower temperatures, energy utilisation is kept to a minimum. The thick mist making visibility poor; gives the predators who hunt by the stalk and pounce method the upper hand.

The mist was dense forming a grey undulating blanket in the lower lying areas, this was sufficient for the formation of water droplets, as one feels them rolling down your face. We slowly bumbled along the winding, normally dusty dirt tracks of the game reserve. The 7 guests on my Land Rover were all content and somewhat mystified by the atmosphere set by the early morning mist. The open vehicle safaris are the ultimate at connecting ones soul with nature, one is able to smell, hear, see and absorb the offerings of the pristine African bushveld!

Luck was on our side; we came around a corner and there in front of us was a female leopard. This however was not just any female leopard; this was the female that was territorially dominant in the south-western sector of the Sabi Sabi game reserve. She was remarkably relaxed and habituated even with the presence of safari vehicles. She was also no stranger to the clicking of cameras; she has probably had more photographs taken of her than Cindy Crawford!

Her estimated age was 15 years, the game rangers learned this from some of the Shangaan trackers that had grown up and lived in this rugged paradise all their lives. This particular female leopard was small in size, but her astuteness and her remarkable hunting techniques compensated for what she lacked in size. One could observe the water droplets on her smooth, silky coat that resembled dappled light conditions. There were a few droplets that had gathered on her whiskers resembling the old oil type lanterns as the meagre sunlight shone through them.

I was in charge of the sighting, the ranger who finds the game controls the sighting until deciding to move on and try find something else. The two-way radio crackled to life as another ranger called himself into the immediate area. He was definitely the one to buy me an ice-cold beer tonight, to find a leopard is the ultimate prize! He, accompanied by his guests, joined the sighting in the safety of the open topped Land Rover, they were treated to this feline at her very best. The leopardess would move through the thick undergrowth almost in a ghostly fashion, momentarily freezing to examine the scent particles carried by the wind. Leopards, when on the move will take advantage of "viewing platforms", these could be in the form of trees, termite mounds or even large rocks. Leopards and most other predators will often use these vantage points to survey the surrounding area for the availability of prey species and to avoid other predators. We were treated to her "posing" for the cameras on these vantage points like a leopard only can.

It started drizzling, I suggested to my guests that we temporarily remove ourselves from the sighting and put on the raincoats that Sabi Sabi provides for their guests. I asked my fellow ranger to take control of the sighting, whilst we temporarily made our way out of the area. Incidentally this needs to be a significant distance from the leopardess, so as not to jeopardise our own safety whilst we stood up and put on another layer.

Three golden rules when participating in an open vehicle safari; do not stand as this gives the predator the opportunity of identifying you as a human being. Do not litter or smoke and do not touch or grab overhanging branches as these often posses needle sharp thorns. This is very typical of most indigenous Acacia species in Southern Africa

The guests and I promptly put on our waterproof outer layer, as we were anxious to return to the sighting and observe the splendour of this magnificent cat. I contacted my fellow ranger on the two-way radio system and enquired if he still had visual of the leopardess. The reply was a negative, she had given them the slip. The leopardess was last seen heading in a north-easterly direction, that was towards my guests and I. My guests were quickly informed of what had happened, we decided to remain motionless and listen for a while...

Antelope, birds even the minuscule tree squirrel have alarm calls for predators, we were situated under a huge Marula tree as we listened with all intent.

Out of the mist she appeared and before I could even start my Land Rover she ascended up the very tree that we were parked under. I uttered to my guests "don't move, don't breath". I slowly reached for my rifle, as any quick movement would ultimately startle her. I loaded my rifle and got myself ready, just in case her curiosity got the better of her, if it did, this would definitely be a case of curiosity killed this cat! At Sabi Sabi the guests safety comes first and without any compromise, although this would be any game rangers or animal lovers worst nightmare. The Leopardess was directly overhead standing on a branch and observing the surrounding landscape, she looked into the distance, looked into the Land Rover and promptly jumped out of the tree and carried on as if nothing had happened.

I made my rifle safe and placed it back on the rifle stand, and simultaneously breathed a sigh of relief with my guests. We looked at each other in utter amazement and disbelief, this was possibly the closest I had ever been to a leopard and definitely the closest any guest wished to get to a leopard. This without doubt brought a new meaning to its raining cats and dogs!

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