Five leopards; two cubs & two ghosts.
by Jem Harris
Xivati, the dominant male leopard that currently resides over the Khaya Ndlovu property first made himself known to us as a young male in 2018. It is believed that he was pushed out in a territorial battle by the more dominant males in the conglomeration of game reserves, east of the R40. His distinctive slow rasp, declaring his newfound territory, was heard by the lodge guests and guides almost every night. “A leopard!” the butlers would exclaim, as he vocalized his presence around Khaya Ndlovu Manor House.
Viable leopard sightings were rare before Xivati’s arrival, but thanks to his relaxed nature he has become a popular individual amongst the Khaya Ndlovu guides and trackers.
Historically, a leopard sighting on the Rietspruit Game Reserve generally consisted of seeing a handful of spots through a pair of binoculars in dense vegetation for a few minutes, or a blur of fleeting dots bounding across the road ahead. These elusive and beautiful cats are incredibly challenging to find, which makes them one of the most revered members of the big five.
Apart from Xivati, the only evidence of leopards on the reserve was indistinct camera trap footage or the odd set of spoor along a handful of roads. Through his interaction with other leopards on the reserve, Xivati led us to have a better understanding of the population. The other leopards were still very skittish around vehicles, and therefore the dynamics were all based on assumption. Towards the end of 2019, however, the unmistakable commotion of a mating pair of leopards was heard at Hippor Dam by Manor House field guide, Dihan.
The excitement was overwhelming as Dihan discovered Xivati and a female, thought to be ‘Mcibi,’ a nervous old girl that had been seen on occasion. Although at a distance, they were clearly visible on the western bank of the dam. This provided a perfect opportunity to collect photos of this female, without disturbing the love affair.
The female had been named ‘Mcibi’ as camera trap footage from the previous year of a leopard drinking daily at Mcibi Pan linked up with her spot patterns. Xivati was also seen mating with her at Caracal Pan in 2018. However, no cubs were ever found, and the fact that the mating interval was so short meant that the cubs from the Caracal Pan mating had most likely succumbed as leopard cub mortality is extremely high.
A few months passed and curiosity among the Khaya Ndlovu guides, and trackers was intensifying. Speculation was rife with all of them questioning the possible whereabouts of the cubs, or indeed, if Mcibi had even conceived and carried to full term.
Locating leopard cubs at a young age is the most efficient way of habituating them, (making them accustomed to the presence and sound of vehicles) and this became the guides’ mission.
Working on a 90-day gestation period, the birth of the cubs was likely to coincide sometime during the national Coronavirus first lockdown period. Driven by a passion-fuelled desire, it became the newly unemployed guides’ mission to locate the den-site where the cubs would be stowed for the first few months of their lives.
There were absolutely no leads on where to begin. The search added a very relevant meaning to the phrase about finding a needle in a haystack! However, Dihan and I started by looking at satellite images of the reserve. Having a sound knowledge of the reserve topography we came to the educated assumption that the cubs had to be stashed safely in the dense forage, somewhere along the banks of the Zandspruit River.
There are many sizeable crevices and cavities, dense root systems, dead trees, and holes to check in the banks of the dry riverbed that runs a lengthy 8km through the Khaya Ndlovu property.
Through the primeval art of tracking, Dihan and I found many sets of female leopard tracks frequenting the area between Mcibi Pan, Caracal Pan and Kudu Road. However, due to the density of the bush, we struggled to keep on a set of tracks, especially those of such an unrelaxed female, who was constantly darting in and out of the thick bush.
After six long weeks of intense tracking expeditions, during the long and fiercely hot Hoedspruit days, and with absolutely no leads, our enthusiasm to find the cubs was beginning to wane. Then, early one May, Sunday morning, I received fresh WhatsApp video footage from the Rhino Revolution vet nurse of a female leopard carrying a tiny cub across one of the dry mud wallows off Kudu Road. This valuable footage had been captured on one of the association’s security trap cameras.
Dihan and I excitedly discussed our tactics as we hopped aboard ‘Sally’ my trusty old Land Rover and shot off in the direction of Kudu Road. After close examination of the dry mud, we discovered a very faint set of spoor heading in a north-westerly direction. The spoor went down into the Zandspruit riverbed and continued north until it got to Caracal Pan. We meticulously examined the banks of the pan, hoping that she had drunk there. The silence around the pan was deafening. Normally there would be an orchestra of birds advertising their evening chorus. A few minutes after our arrival, however, the unmistakable alarming of a Rattling Cisticola could be heard. We assumed that we had startled the leopard and she had slinked off out of eyeshot, her movement distressing the Cisticola. We tracked on around a corner and happened upon a massive donga system, just north of the pan itself. To our delight, there were numerous tracks of the female in and out of the system. I looked at Dihan, his smile was telling! “They must be here,” he mumbled.
We returned to fetch Sally where we left her at the mud-wallow off Kudu Road. A silent journey of fifteen minutes ensued as we made our way to the possible den-site on the opposite side of the Zandspruit.
After about two hours of patiently sitting in Sally at the anticipated den site, I uttered to Dihan, “My boet let's go, I think we need to put a camera trap here tomorrow and wait for evidence.” His polite response implored me to give it another 10 minutes. A few moments passed and the all too familiar sound of a warm black label lager opening to my left triggered my attention. As I glanced across, Dihan murmured, “Did you hear that?” Before I could respond, a high-pitched screech echoed out of the donga followed by excessive scathing, the term used to describe a female leopard contact calling her cubs! Muting my intense excitement did not come easily! Finally, after months of work, Dihan and I had located the mysterious leopard cub den-site that had been on every traverse holders’ radar since the sighting at Hippo Dam.
As the sun was already dipping below the mountain, we decided to leave the area. We felt it would be best to return early the following morning and try and find a suitable position in which to view the cubs.
Early, the next day, and with a hot flask of coffee in hand, Dihan and I returned to the site in high anticipation of getting a glimpse of the youngsters. Three long and agonising hours passed with no sign of them at all. We left and returned for three consecutive days with the same result and swiftly sinking spirits!
On the fourth day, we decided to walk down to the base of the donga, all we could see was dense bush and the odd set of spoor that was a couple of days old. They had gone!
So close, yet so far from the den. We were basically back to square one!
We searched for the next week, with the same outcome. Female leopard tracks everywhere, and no direction! The possibility of there being more than one female leopard operating in the area was highly likely, and Dihan and I did not want to waste valuable time tracking the wrong female.
The following week a very random message on the reserve sightings WhatsApp group came through at 2 pm on a Thursday afternoon. It read “leopard and two cubs drinking at Hippo Dam.” I was on my way to do a freelance game drive at Thornybush Nature Reserve, but before I could finish reading the message, a phone call came through from Dihan to inform me that he was on his way to Hippo Dam! The thought briefly crossed my mind that the sender was perhaps mistaking the sighting for a female cheetah and her two cubs that were on the reserve.
As Dihan arrived at Hippo Dam the trio of cats had disappeared over the back of the dam wall. However, he managed to get a glimpse of the youngsters and capture a few photos. They were indeed leopards! However, they were noticeably young, about 8 weeks old, which did not add up, as the cub seen in the mother’s mouth on the camera trap off Kudu Road seemed slightly younger. However, our excitement levels were too great to worry about this minute detail.
The next day, Dihan and I walked up the Hippo Dam outflow and located the youngsters in a very rocky area. The habituation process had officially started!
After spending two full days in Sally at the cubs’ den-site, they became quite inquisitive and ventured closer to the vehicle. This was a fantastic breakthrough, as their curiosity overcame their naturally shy disposition.
However, as Dihan and I returned for the third day we were met with the same fate as a few weeks prior. They had disappeared!
After this second disappearance, we were not as concerned as we knew the cubs were more curious than shy. “They will pop up again.” I confidently reassured Dihan.
Two weeks later, a report of a leopard cub on Rhino Road came through. Dihan and I shot off to the area and after a thorough search, and feeling extremely disappointed, we gave up the hunt. However, as we turned Sally around to head in the direction of the lodge, two tiny ears appeared through a gap on top of a termite mound, right next to the road!
I can honestly say that this felt like it was the best moment of my life!
The cubs remained on the termite mound for over ten days, with no sign of their mother. Dihan and I spent approximately six hours a day with the youngsters. We could finally say we had two habituated leopard cubs on the Rietspruit Game Reserve. Adding to our joy was the fact that these two cubs were the kin of Xivati.
As time went on, the cubs grew into a fantastic sibling sighting. We enjoyed many viewings of them over the next six months but were always mystified by their mother, believed to be Mcibi. Apart from a very fleeting glimpse of her at Hippo Dam, she remained a mystery. My common sense told me that after six months of following these youngsters, we would have seen the mother more often. However, we did not dwell on her absence as we were just so excited to spend time with the youngsters.
In February of this year, we located the young cubs on a juvenile duiker kill. We believe this was the first substantial kill they had made for themselves, and I fully understood the pride that my parents must have felt when they watched me graduate from university! Dihan and I had a fantastic evening watching the youngsters eat their trophy and decided it was now time to name them.
Dihan named the young male, ‘Xidulu’ which is Shangaan for termite mound. As it was his ears popping out the bush on the termite mound that day on Rhino Road, we believed this to be an appropriate name.
The female was always the adventurous one. Often, she would be on the thinnest branch at the top of a tree hanging on for dear life. Her desire to explore was incredible. I christened her with the name, ‘Kwira,’ a Shona word for the climber!
The easiest way to identify leopards is using a spot pattern. The most preferable one is the pattern above the first whisker line. As an example, Kwira has a 2:3 spot pattern meaning her right side has 2 spots above the whisker line and her left side has 3 spots above the whisker line.
“Kau, Kau, Kau…Kau, Kau, Kau...”
Monkeys have fantastic eyesight, capable of picking up the most camouflaged of predators. For weeks, the Manor house guests were waking to the frantic alarms of the Khaya garden monkeys, and with no lion or cheetah spoor evident around the Lodge, Dihan and I were confident that the cubs were venturing into the Lodge territory. Then late one afternoon, as the guests were enjoying a sundowner on the Manor House deck, a young female leopard appeared briefly behind the lodge waterhole. With photographic evidence of her spot pattern; a 2:3 above the whisker line, we were extremely excited to believe it was Kwira operating so close to the lodge. I can safely say that the resident monkeys did not share the same enthusiasm for this intrusion.
A few days went by when Manor House guide, Sam was setting off on a morning game drive, when he spotted three leopards as he was leaving the lodge: a nervous female with two subadult cubs. After a short visual, a guest photo of the female confirmed her to be Mcibi. However, the subadult cubs were skittish and not showing the relaxed behaviour that we had come to expect from Xidulu and Kwira. Dihan and I did not think much of it and concluded that when the cubs were in the presence of their mother, her nervous disposition was affecting them.
The following day, Dihan and I were out tracking Xivati when we picked up Xidulu resting in a young Jackalberry tree. He was incredibly relaxed and lay quietly throughout the afternoon whilst several game-drive vehicles stopped by to admire the young leopard. This behaviour confused us as it did not match the agitation, he had shown the day before!
The One Spot Difference:
A few weeks passed and an impala carcass stashed in a Marula tree just south of the Manor House waterhole caught Dihan’s attention. He returned to the kill in the early evening and found a young male leopard with a 2:2 spot pattern, feeding on the hoisted kill. Scanning the surrounds, a young female with a 2:3 pattern appeared. She looked identical to Kwira. Nothing made sense, why was Kwira with this young male, who was clearly not her brother, Xidulu? We speculated on Xidulu’s whereabouts, and questioned why he was not with Kwira and Mcibi, wondering all the time about the identification of this young 2:2 male?
The following day, Mcibi made a brief appearance on the kill. As always, the sighting was fleeting, however Dihan was able to capture a photo, confirming her identification.
A little while later, Dihan was editing the leopard photos of the trio for the lodge social media, and he made a significant discovery whilst studying a photo of the 2:3 female thought to be Kwira. There was an unfamiliar spot in-between the first and second whisker line. He cross-referenced this photo with a confirmed photo of Kwira and the mystery fell into place; this was a completely different leopard!
The young male and female around the lodge were Mcibi’s cubs, and Kwira and Xidulu were the cubs of a completely unknown female leopard on the reserve. This means that the first den site we found at Caracal Pan belonged to Mcibi and her kin, whilst the second den site, north of Hippo dam was home to the equally skittish mother of Xidulu and Kwira!
We had two pairs of leopard cubs, of approximately the same age, both of which were male and female siblings! What a coincidence!
The latest addition to the Khaya leopards is an unknown female who holds fort around the Wild Dog dam area. As Mcibi and the cubs’ mother are already established in the area, only time will tell if this newcomer holds onto her territory. She has been seen regularly quenching her thirst at the dam and appears to be more relaxed with every new sighting of her.