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My Life with Leopards
Fransje van Riel
MISGIVINGS AND EXHILARATION
Londolozi Game Reserve Mpumalanga, South Africa 30 May 1993
Tossing and turning sleeplessly, I listened through the canvas walls of my tent to lions calling less than a kilometre from camp. As they bellowed into the night sky, I recognised the voices of the two Dudley Males as they patrolled the far northern boundary of their territory.
Hhhhhoouuuwww. Hhhoouuuwww. Hhhoouuuwww. Huh. Huh. huh.
The cold night air carried their throaty roars far into the cloudless night across the open bushveld to reach their females who had remained further south with their offspring. Battle-scarred, belligerent and mature in years, the Dudley Males swaggered through the bush with the slow, nonchalant arrogance of those aware of their own power, parting herds of antelope like monarchs striding through a crowd. Reciprocating the calls from deep inside the reserve, five lionesses and their three large, shaggy sub-adult cubs were resting beside the remains of their day-old kill and in no hurry to meet their pride males. The Dudley Pride normally remained in the very heart of their territory while the two brothers plodded to each and every corner of their domain, scent marking and defending their land against the powerful Sparta Pride that kept territory to the north.
The Castleton Lionesses were at the helm of the Sparta Pride; two sisters, big, ruthless females and expert killers who often managed to pull down an adult giraffe between the two of them. The sisters were a living legend amongst the Londolozi rangers and with their five sub-adult sons and three burly daughters they formed a hefty pride that few other lions dared to confront. Now two years old, the formidable cubs had been sired by the Mala Mala males, two robust lions that crossed on to the land from time to time from the neighbouring private reserve. They had delegated parental responsibilities such as hunting and defending their core area to the Castleton Lionesses whose matriarchal rule remained unchallenged by the pride males.
The unusual set-up had its roots in a cruel twist of fate many years before when one of the neighbouring landowners allowed his son to shoot the resident male as a trophy for his eighteenth birthday present. Fierce squabbles exploded among several females from rival prides until one day two nomadic brothers, recently ousted from their own pride, padded into the area to find a fortuitous vacuum. Still lanky, with gangling bodies and scrawny manes, the Dudley Males quickly and instantly demarcated the territory as their own, switching between the Sparta and Dudley prides.
A shiver ran down my spine as I listened to the gruff voices and tapering rumbles growing more distant into the night. Pulling my blankets up to my chin, I imagined the two brothers padding through the darkness, heads swaying slightly, as they moved back to their pride through sandy gullies and thick Combretum woodland. I had heard lions calling for as many years as I had been at Londolozi and I admired their brutish strength, phenomenal resilience and even their cold callousness – the characteristics that ensured that they remained at the top of the food chain. But now, for the first time, I also felt a distinct sense of dread. Lions were the big ones, much more so than hyenas or leopards.
In the distance I heard an impala ram snort an alarm, a sneeze-like warning to alert his drifting herd to the presence of the Dudley brothers as they moved across the open plains. The impala were right to be wary; I had witnessed brutal death descending on an unsuspecting animal in a short moment of carelessness.
Closing my eyes, I tried to shut out the image of innocent leopard cubs that had over the years been savagely mauled and left for dead by lions and involuntarily I murmured a silent prayer for the two tiny leopard cubs that were due to arrive in camp tomorrow.
Turning over once more, I felt the anxiety of the past few days creeping back into my mind. John Varty, co-owner of Londolozi and my boss, had secured two six-week-old leopard cubs from a private zoo in Zimbabwe with the intention of using them in a commercial Hollywood movie depicting a fictionalised version of the true-life relationship he had shared with a female leopard that he had been able to follow and film on the reserve for fourteen years. The Mother Leopard, as she became known, allowed John an extraordinary insight into the secretive life of a leopard and, capturing this on film, John indirectly ensured that Londolozi became South Africa's premier destination for unique leopard sightings. When the Mother Leopard disappeared after being mauled either by lions or another leopard at the ripe old age of seventeen, John was determined to pay homage to her through the medium he knew best – the world of film.
The prospect of raising two six-week-old leopard cubs in the middle of the bush was mind-blowing and although it was a dream that I could never have imagined, now that it was just around the corner I also felt some grave misgivings. Was I really capable of becoming a parent to two baby leopards? How would I protect them in a challenging environment where lions, hyenas and other leopards roamed freely and would have little empathy for two small newcomers? Would I know instinctively how to care for them? Where would I even start?
I was under no illusions that what I was about to embark on was a weighty responsibility and I knew I would never forgive myself if anything happened to them while they were in my care. I had gone through my share of personal loss early on in life and I was aware of the pain and heartbreak that lay at the end of the ride. The intention was for the cubs to be released in the wild once they had grown up and this was what I had to prepare them for.
IT SEEMED THAT everything in my life so far had been leading towards this night. My lifelong passion for the bush had begun when I was a young boy during family visits to the Kruger National Park with my parents and my sister Celia. One visit was all it took to get me hooked and that was the start of a long childhood drive to leave the big city and be at one with wild animals in their own pristine environment. Friends and family had warned my parents against taking two toddlers there for a weekend break, predicting that they'd end up with two screaming children in the back seat, but Celia and I were instantly captivated and the only crying we did was when we left the gates to head home to Johannesburg.
I had my first taste of actually living in the bush at the age of nineteen during the second year of my military service in the South African army when I volunteered to go to the Namibian border to work as a chef. I had never been interested in weapons or in fighting wars for anyone. So ducking that side of things by cooking for the army guys who were testing G6 cannons developed by the South African apartheid government seemed a good way to fulfil my compulsory second year of service.
Immediately after making breakfast I'd leave the base camp and disappear on long walks into the bush, observing and trying to identify birds and small animals that scuttled between the clumps of grass beneath my feet. Sleeping in a tent and wearing nothing but a pair of shorts felt incredibly liberating from the complications of city life. It was as if I had come home to the place where I was supposed to be.
Once back in the sprawling crowds of the metropolis after completing my military service, I enrolled at the Pretoria Technikon to study Nature Conservation and Field Management. But after six months of daily traffic jams and road rage I couldn't bear the idea of another three years so, somewhat against my own better judgement, I dropped out and started sending letters to a number of private game reserves, hoping to find a job in the bush. When Londolozi offered me a position as rookie game ranger in the stunning Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve I was over the moon. Finally, I was heading in the right direction.
I was assigned to work with a Shangaan tracker named Carlson Mathebula who shared with me his vast knowledge of all aspects of bush craft, from tracking wild animals and evaluating their spoor to identifying trees and birds. Under his guidance I became alert to the smallest of details: an area of flattened grass that pointed to where a lion had recently rested, a flock of tiny birds calling an alarm to the presence of a snake slithering through the undergrowth, or the screeching calls of baboons and vervet monkeys protesting at a predatory creature nearby – a leopard perhaps, stealing low over the ground.
Carlson and I worked closely together for a number of years and what I found most impressive of all was his uncanny ability to track lions. He seemed fearless, picking up on and investigating the tiniest of clues, such as finding a single lion's hair left behind on a small bush. He walked ahead of me but I still felt a little anxious being on foot close to a lion, even though I was the one armed with a rifle. But those were special times and I experienced a heightening of all my senses and felt joyously alive. I could barely believe I was paid just to be there.
AFTER THE PRIVILEGE of Carlson's tutelage I felt pretty confident that I could deal with just about any situation I might stumble on in the bush but the venture I was about to undertake was entirely different. Being the protector of two baby leopards would mean that I was no longer an outsider, a mere observer of the situations and dangers that wild animals face every day. I would now be a part of it, which in itself was hugely exciting. Never in my wildest fantasies had I ever imagined I would be doing something like this, but I wasn't complacent about it. Leopards are dangerous animals, inscrutable and much less predictable than lions or cheetahs. According to some experts, they were not to be trusted beyond the age of six months even if they had been hand-reared. They could turn on you in the blink of an eye.
I shivered as a cloud of freezing cold air blew through the fine mesh netting of the tent's fly screen. Winter had definitely arrived. It was still very dark, perhaps a few hours before dawn. Tomorrow was the last day of May and the few short sweet weeks of autumn were already behind us, bringing sunny and pleasantly warm days with bitterly cold evenings and nights.
I had moved out of my room in the staff quarters of the Londolozi Main Camp a couple of days earlier so that I could acclimatise to my new life in a small unpretentious camp on the banks of the sandy Inyatini riverbed that wound in a large S-shape through the thick Combretum bushveld. The donga was a small tributary of the wide dry Xabene riverbed which snaked through the centre of the reserve from the east through tall trees, shrubs and thorny thickets that were an excellent food source for browsers like elephants, kudu, nyala and steenbok.
My camp had been specially set up for the cubs and was unfenced. It was small and intimate, consisting of no more than a small collection of tents, including my large comfortable Meru tent, a bush shower that was open on the side overlooking the riverbed and a long-drop toilet banished to the far side. A large weeping wattle bowed over my tent on the right and a few metres to the left was the enclosure we had constructed for the cubs, a cage measuring about four by four metres. I had lined the inside with soft river sand to cushion the cubs' young paws and padded the outside metal bars and mesh with thick thorn scrub to keep predators at bay and offer some seclusion from prying eyes.
The camp was well concealed from the outside world, blending perfectly with the Combretum woodland. Knobthorn, russet and red bushwillow trees, weeping wattles and red spike-thorn towered over the bushland with sprinklings of marula trees and thick entanglements of num-num bush, Grewia thickets and river climbing thorn. Then there were the larger trees such as looming leadwoods and rough dark-barked tamboti trees sandwiched along the Inyatini riverbed. The southern bank was open with large sandy areas that sprouted guarri bushes and several grass species; tassel three-awn, carrot seed and thick stands of guinea grass.
No one could see the camp until they followed the road that led straight into it. Early one morning, a few days after I had moved into my tent, a small band of francolins stumbled into the camp from the bush to the north and seemed surprised that it was there. Sometimes a pre-dawn curtain of thick mist enveloped the surrounding bush, pushing a wall of haze all the way to the ground. It was beautiful but also rather eerie. Anything – an elephant or a hyena – could have penetrated that curtain of fog and found themselves in the middle of camp. But to me that just added to its peaceful and natural charm and I felt completely at home.
It was hard to imagine that the Main Camp, with its upmarket conveniences and affluent visitors, was just a few kilometres down the road. Along with the other private reserves in the Sabi Sand, Londolozi offered guests some of the best and most spectacular big game sightings, attracting both local and international clientele to its three exquisite and individually designed signature lodges – Main Camp, Bush Camp and Tree Camp. Luxury accommodation, personal service and fine dining were all part of the Londolozi experience. For me, though, nothing compared with living in the bush, cooking over an open fire and gazing at a roof of stars before spending the night under canvas. I kept the front and back flaps of my tent open with only the fly screen down so that I could listen to the sounds of the bush, whether it was the grunts of the giant eagle owl that had its perch in a leadwood not far from camp or lions calling from across the dry riverbed.
Over the years I had developed the ability to recognise most of the larger big cats in the area individually and could differentiate the features of the various lion prides as well as the territorial leopards. I never tired of scrutinising the faces of these individuals, something that had started when I came across the Mother Leopard for the very first time, on the day I arrived at Londolozi. She was already a mature twelve-year-old but her condition was good and her coat a rich deep gold with dark rosettes. She displayed infinite grace as she made her way down a small road in the heart of the reserve, like a legendary Hollywood actress who still turned every head in the room. When she heard us approaching she paused for a moment and, swivelling her ears, swung her stunningly beautiful body around to face us, staring me straight in the eye for a few hypnotic seconds. Undeterred by our presence, she took several strides towards us until she picked up an interesting scent and the moment was lost. She sniffed at a small patch of grass for a while and then she raised her head to resume her original direction and continued on her way. I fell in love with leopards there and then.
A few months later I fell even more deeply in love. Carlson, who was scanning the bush from the tracker's seat in the Land Rover, signalled to me to slow down while we were driving along the southern section of the reserve with several guests in the back of the open vehicle. As we moved slowly forward through an open area along the Xabene riverbed, he pointed to two tumbling cubs playing on the stump of a fallen tree, their fur mottled and coated with moisture from the early morning dew. The guests were thrilled, suppressing loud exclamations of surprise and excitement as the small cubs, oblivious to the impact they were having, pounced on each other and stalked any new object that caught their attention. I, too, was captivated. Compared to the adult leopards I had seen, these cubs were so small, so innocent, and their fur looked so soft and fluffy.
About two years later, I was driving in the bush by myself on my day off when I saw a big male leopard I called Def padding purposefully through the undergrowth towards a small clearing. He had been born in October 1989, the last of the Mother Leopard's offspring and an only cub who was kept hidden amongst the crevices and thickets while his mother went out hunting. Having grown used to the sound of Land Rovers and the soft murmurs of guests and rangers, the little male soon became extremely habituated to game vehicles and we'd often watch him stumble out of hiding to lie in the cool shade of our Land Rovers.
When I came across him that morning Def was an independent young adult leopard. His body was long and sleek and he had grown muscular and strong but despite the fact that he was a very capable and proficient killer, he still sometimes stopped to brush himself along the sides of our vehicles and rub his huge head and powerful neck on the Land Rover's metal bull bar. Watching him do all these cute cat things never ceased to thrill so, when I saw him moving towards the small clearing, I slowly drove up ahead of him, manoeuvring the vehicle so that I wouldn't block his path, but giving me an excellent opportunity to watch him close up once again. I switched off the ignition and sat back, waiting for him to approach.