The Waterberg District in the Limpopo Province of South Africa is hardly renowned for its leopard sightings. They are rare, and at best tend to be a blur of yellow and spots. Before working in the Marakele National Park, I worked for two and a half years on another reserve in the Waterberg and during that whole time I only saw two leopards as they dashed across the road.
However, we are lucky in the Marakele to have a handful of leopards that are relaxed around vehicles.
About three months ago a tiny leopard cub was spotted on an evening game drive. At a first glance in the dark the ranger mistook it for an African wildcat, but as it dashed for cover, he saw the tell-tale spots. It was a leopard cub! Over the next few days a guide sat quietly in a car waiting, watching and listening out for any alarm calls. Nothing. After a week we reopened the area as the mother had obviously moved her cub.
About two weeks later on a game drive down the same road, there stood a leopardess with two little cubs that slinked off at the sight of the vehicle. After the game drive all of the guides jumped in a cruiser and went to the scene of the sighting.
We found a big bull elephant happily feeding on top of a drainage line close to where the leopards had been spotted. When we stopped to look at him, there was a slight movement in the drainage line. It was the leopardess, but once again she slinked off. We waited patiently before turning the car around, and about ten minutes later she gingerly poked her head out from behind a bush.
She then crossed the road with her two cubs in tow. These were the first leopard cubs that I had ever seen, and I was taking so many photos that the shutter on my camera sounded like a machine gun. When I came out from behind the lens, a third cub then hopped out from the bush! It was much smaller than the others and struggled a bit to walk across the road. It froze when it saw us but its mum picked it up and they all disappeared into the bush.
Every day for the next few weeks we returned in between drives to this area. We would spend hours sitting and chatting, and although we often did not see the leopards, we knew that they were not far away. Animals would regularly alarm call around us and we knew that we were being watched.
This was my first experience in attempting to familiarise leopard cubs with a vehicle. However, common sense dictates that any interaction with the cubs must be positive as it would affect how they would perceive vehicles and humans in the future.
This was a learning curve for all of the guides, and I won’t pretend that the female leopard was always happy with our presence. On one occasion we spotted her feeding on an impala carcass with the cubs, and it was clear that she did not want to be disturbed. From then on if she was feeding, we left her alone.
Over time the cubs became more relaxed and inquisitive about the vehicle. On a number of occasions we were lucky enough to even see them suckling from their mother, which is the ultimate sign of relaxation. When they suckled, we turned the vehicle on and off, and moved it a couple of metres at a time. By doing this they became accustomed to the noise and movement, and thus learnt not to fear it. In the end they simply ignored the start of the ignition.
If the mother left the cubs, we followed suit as we did not want them to become distracted by us; a mistake that could cost them their lives. If the cubs moved we also never followed them off road as we did not want them to feel chased.
It can be assumed that the leopardess also has other den sites for which we have only discovered tracks. Using different den sites would prevent any one area from smelling strongly and attracting predators, as even baboons are a danger to leopard cubs.
I have learnt a lot over the last few months, and I have been exhausted. I have sat baking in the midday heat hoping to catch a glimpse of a leopard or a cub. I have listened to francolins, monkeys, impala and squirrels alarm calling in anticipation, and I have raced around getting things ready for my afternoon game drive because I spent too long sitting in the bush in between drives.
Most importantly though I have loved every minute of it! It is very satisfying to sit quietly and watch these bundles of fluff playing, and to know that we have had something to do with how these leopard cubs will behave around vehicles as they grow up.