by ranger Liam Henderson
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As rangers we
are all passionate about animals and most of us have pets at our homes away from the reserve. However, there is an understanding that one must undertake when becoming a ranger; while we spend hours every day admiring and watching the animals around us, we will never get to touch them or form any sort of affectionate physical bond. They are not pets and these wild animals must remain wild. Now, rangers and guests alike have all had at least the slightest of urges to climb off a Land Rover and cuddle up next to sleeping lions, scratch the belly of a leopard, rub behind the ears of a rhino or shake hands with an elephant’s trunk (well maybe that last one is just me). However, we know that this is never going to happen and, if it did, it would probably be our last living act! But over time we are inevitably drawn towards certain individuals through shades of respect, admiration, sympathy, etc. I formed my first and strongest ‘connection’ with a certain young leopardess…
When I arrived at MalaMala Game Reserve in October 2017, I was (and still am) blown away by the wonders of the reserve’s landscape and the animals that call it home. In the beginning a new ranger must first learn the roads and this can be, nay, is very confusing! An often-asked question from guests at MalaMala is “Do you ever get lost? There are no road signs!” To which I usually reply, “You would never know if I was.” Many hours are spent out in the bush with a map before we are allowed to venture out with guests. This period is often remembered very fondly by all rangers. For days on end it’s just you and the African bush. During my initial phase of learning the reserves intricate and vast road network I’d heard that a female leopard had given birth to a litter of three. Naturally I was determined to learn the roads very well around where she was denning her newly born cubs. For record keeping and research we name our leopards. We do not give them names such as “Skippy” or “Spot” but rather a name associated with the area in which they became territorial or a significant land mark in that area. The mother leopard in question had been named ‘the Lookout female’ as she was often seen on two roads; Dudley Lookout and Flockfield Lookout, both run along the banks of the Sand River. So, I became very well versed in the roads that encompassed her den as well as the valleys and drainage systems that carved out the surrounding land. A truly beautiful place and ideal for raising cubs safely. I enjoyed several sightings of all four leopards together. They were affectionate and playful. I started to see individual personalities emerging. One cub was shy and never strayed far from its mother, one was more boisterous and the other had a taste for exploring. It was impossible for me not to form an emotional attachment. Unfortunately, two of the cubs died early on and it was a bitter pill for me to swallow. It’s a harsh world out there.
For most mothers in the animal kingdom, the safety of their offspring is of the utmost importance and the Lookout female was no exception to this. She kept her surviving female cub (the explorer) a suitable distance away from our vehicles. If the cub ventured too close then it would be checked by a snarl or growl from her mother. However, as time passed the cub’s irresistible curiosity defeated its mother’s warnings and the snarls soon faded away. The cub quickly became a crowd favourite and it wasn’t long before we were the ones giving the warning… A soft clap of the hands was often required to dissuade the cub from attempting to climb into the Land Rover. Again, we all harboured the secret urge to let her climb on up but we knew what had to be done. One day she’ll be a big leopard and… well, you can imagine what could happen.
At the anniversary of my first year with MalaMala (and her birthday or there about) she vanished. For several weeks there was no sign of her or her mother. The areas in which they would often be found became void of paw prints or alarming impalas that would announce their presence. My heart dropped lower with each passing day. I had come to know this leopard better than any other on the reserve and almost as well as my dog back home. A young leopard is susceptible to a variety of threats out in the wild, with other leopards being at the top of that list. The theories piled up. Was the cub killed by another leopard? Lions? Were they pushed out of their territory? Weeks went by without a trace of neither mother nor cub.
I can clearly remember driving down the dry bed of the Matshapiri River, scanning its banks. This was on the very edge of the Lookout female’s territory. “Leopard!” I heard my guest call out from behind me. My eyes followed her outstretched hand. A small and slender looking spotted cat floated over the sand with ease. It ascended the bank and then climb up into a large Jackalberry Tree. Was it the Lookout female’s cub? Yes! The elation that I felt as we drew closer to gaze up at her as she sat in the fork of the tree has, to date, not been matched.
Fast forward to the last few weeks. She has become independent of her mother and we’ve been seeing much more of this phenomenal feline. Nothing excites me more or draws a broader smile to my face than hearing on the radio “Stations. There’s a female leopard at … It’s the daughter of the Lookout female.” She consistently entertains all who view her with her energetic movements up and down Marula Trees and through treacherous thickets. Every moment with her is a moment well spent and most leave feeling ‘connected’. She has also just started to display territorial behaviour. History tells us that female leopards set up small territories that are bequeathed to them by their mothers. The Lookout female has a prime piece of real estate along the Sand River which, during the dry winter months, allows her to reap the rewards of the only available water which sees herds of impala, nyalas and bushbuck accommodating the banks.
Naturally, she now has all the rangers coming up with a potential name for her. But more importantly, whatever we call her, she won’t come.