When patience pays off

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Our Private Guided Safaris are aimed at connecting people with nature, at gaining a better understanding of animal behavior but mostly at taking it all in: the big things, the small things, the tracks, the smells, the cultural significance of plants, the people that inhabit these lands. While we will try to “tick” all the boxes in terms of our guests wishes, we don’t rush around from sighting to sighting to sighting. We don’t collect numbers, we search for meaningful experiences; there is value in slowing down and spending time with wildlife, and most importantly – searching for it.

On a recent safari at Djuma, private guide Tristan and his guests, had an experience that reminded us that the biggest rewards sometimes come from sitting patiently and letting things play out the way they should.

During a morning drive, Mike, our Djuma guide, came to a sudden stop. “There on the tree. I’m not sure.” – he pointed out.

As Tristan searches with his binoculars, he announced with a chuckle: “Of course it’s a leopard, well spotted Mike”.

Closely inspecting leopard tracks in the mud.

Normally, leopards in the Sabi Sand in South Africa are quite relaxed animals as generations of them have grown up being viewed by vehicles which allows for some fantastic viewing opportunities of what is generally considered a shy and elusive cat. With every rule however, an exception is to be found and this newly spotted leopard was not a relaxed individual. As the group approached the tree where the leopard was perched, it decided to climb down and head to the thickets where it could hide away.

The consensus was that it was a small leopard. Tristan and Mike then decided to put some distance between the vehicle and the leopard to allow it to relax, and perhaps reveal itself one more time. As they drove around, they realized there was also a freshly made impala kill on the ground. Considering the size of the leopard we had seen running away, this seemed like quite a prize.

Having seen the leopard move away, Tristan and Mike’s call was to leave the sighting and move off the area, thus allowing the leopard relax and return to its kill before any lurking scavengers had the chance to take advantage of its efforts. When on safari, we are observers and guests into the wildlife’s lives. If we want this relationship of trust to continue, we should always put the animal’s welfare first and avoid causing unnecessary stress where we can; we left the area and continued our morning drive with the intention of returning at dusk.

The Djuma traverse, where we conduct some of our prescheduled Private Guided Safaris, shares and unfenced border with the Kruger National Park and the Manyeleti Game Reserve, allowing for a greater movement of animals in between these three areas. Although it’s not uncommon to have male leopards and lions migrating to this traverse over time, citizen science and social media data generally allows us to pinpoint where an individual has come from and obtain some insight of its background and lineage.

Female leopards tend to remain in their natal territory and surrounding areas, while males are normally the ones to disperse into far-away lands in hopes of claiming a territory for themselves where resources and mating opportunities will be found. There are of course individual exceptions based on circumstantial factors, but in general rules, this is the usual in terms of leopard behaviour when “coming of age”. How far male leopards will disperse will depend on a variety of factors; the longest dispersal recorded is of 352.8 km spanning across 3 countries (Fatterbert et al, 2013)

Video taken during on of our private guided safari to Djuma. Proof of how relaxed some individual become with safari vehicles.

That afternoon Tristan and his group bumbled about but returned to where they had seen the young leopard during the morning safari. The kill was covered in grass, behaviour sometimes observed in leopard when they want to try and hide their kills sight or smell, and it had been moved closer to the tree; Tristan suspected it was still quite heavy for the leopard to take up on the tree. Everything indicated that the leopard was still around, so we decided to wait at a distance from the kill, for the cover of the night – which usually makes leopards feel more comfortable with vehicles – in hopes of seeing this individual again.

As the light of the day slowly started to fade away, the clouds gave way to a soft rain and so the group decided to park under a tree and weather the storm. A group made up of 7 leopard lovers put on their ponchos and braved the storm, always keeping an alert eye out in case the leopard returned. About 45 minutes later, waiting in the rain had turned to one of the most fruitful safari conversations of the trip. Tristan and guests chatted about weather patterns in South Africa that had brought upon the rain they were under and how this season was proving to be above average and what that meant for humans, wildlife and the environment, they focused on the life scrub hares as one slowly hopped from its diurnal hiding spot and started foraging, they spoke softly to try and appreciate the light footsteps of a bull elephant in the rain, they discerned the distant hyena whoops had started drawing closer and closer. Not so secretly, everyone hoped for the hyenas to miss the kill site in hopes that the leopard could finish its kill or return in time to stash in on the nearby tree. Eventually, the whoops had drawn closer and the outline and shapes of hyenas could be spotted. Cautiously, a hyena approached the kill while a second one stayed sniffing around a fallen over tree. Claiming its prize, the first hyena found the kill, and in a hurry took off with the spoils. Eventually the second hyena took off following the path of the first one. With the aid of the spotlight, the group searched for the giveaway of the red glare of the leopard’s eyes. To everyone’s surprise, the two red eyes were on the fallen over tree just above where the second hyena had been sniffing around!

Slowly, we approached the fallen over tree and in true leopard fashion, the cover of darkness had boosted the leopard’s confidence allowing the vehicle get close enough to reveal itself. The youngster decided to drape itself on the bark of the fallen-over tree and graciously pose for us before heading onto the ground and moving off. Still high with the adrenaline rush of having managed to meet the leopard that had kept us patiently waiting in the rain, we decided to leave it to the cover of darkness and return home.

The highlight of the sighting was no doubt seeing our efforts come to fruition by being able to meet the little cat that had willingly revealed itself to us. But equally special, if not more, was witnessing and being part of the first steps into the leopard habituation process. The uncertainty, the weather, the patience and the thrill of what we experienced by being willing to slow down and let nature reveal itself on its own terms was certainly the highlight during this safari.

In our current world, where social media and the ability to obtain instant gratification and knowledge of over virtually anything is almost a given, it was again nature that reminded us that slowing down, being patient and weathering the rain with like-minded people can yield the biggest rewards. The success of a safari shouldn’t be measured by the number of big cat sightings in a drive, but rather by the quality of time spent observing and learning about the secrets that nature is willing to award us, if we are willing to put in the work.

Even in an area where leopards and big cats are extensively researched and the lives of entire generations are well documented and followed, this young leopard however has proven to beat the odds and remains still a mystery. We don’t know where he has come from or where he fits in the leopard territory puzzle, but Tristan does hope is to be able to further track this individual so that the habituating efforts can continue and he can become a regular on our future Private Guided Djuma Safaris.

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