A Fall from Grace

Sabi Sand · January 2019
By Ross Couper
Field Guide, Content Provider

I started my career at Singita in the Kruger National Park. I loved the area; it was wild, full of surprises and pure remote wilderness. When I started guiding in the area, general wildlife viewing was plentiful with a strong abundance of lion that dominated the area as the main predator. There were a few leopard sightings that were reported, particularly that we were able to identify; however they were slowly habituating to the vehicles as we explored the remoteness of the area. The leopards soon realized that we were not a threat and as the guides maintained a comfortable distance from the elusive predators, this enabled being able to recognise certain individuals or watch behavioural indicators that would warrant maintaining a distance or permitting a closer view. Within a short period of time a few key individuals were viewed frequently, however rarely enough that we would learn much about their characters. I took up an opportunity to be transferred to Singita Sabi Sand, unbeknown to the leopard population in the area, it was motivational move to gain further experience and look for opportunities of growth within Singita.

I was introduced to the area by the current head guide, Mark, along with a few other senior guides. As we drove around on various roads, we encountered a leopard in long grass. With a few seconds one of guides noted that the female leopard in question was Hlaba’Nkunzi. At the time, she was not well known to the area as her territory was predominantly west of Singita’s private game reserve. At the time that we saw her, an elated surprise was that a young female leopard cub was accompanying her. Little did we know at that time the little female cub would soon would be a prominent leopard moving around Singita.

The current resident female leopard that dominated the area was Ravenscourt. She was a beautiful leopard that would move in close vicinity of the lodges. She was extremely habituated to vehicles. A successful female that would often introduce her cubs at a young age and she had an incredibly god success rate in raising cubs to adulthood. Within my first year Ravenscourt was killed by a rogue male leopard at the time, known as Nyelethi. She was instinctively defending her young male cub.

With the loss of a resident female leopard the territorial area was vacant from female leopards for almost two years. The transition of the vacant two years, it was reported frequently that Hlaba’Nkunzi was viewed moving further east knowing that the area was unattended by a resident female. It soon was evident that Hlaba’Nkunzi had shifted her territory further east and this included the two Singita Lodges. Hlaba’Nkunzi had adopted the exact same territorial zone as the Ravenscourt female leopard. It was so similar that she even used the exact same den sites that had been used in the past by Ravenscourt. Often we would encounter her on the same pathways used. It soon become so confusing that even the guides and trackers referred to her as the Ravenscourt female for several months, quickly correcting themselves on the radio transmission when they realized their error. It was comical at times, however we all smiled contagiously when we called the sighting incorrectly on the radio.

Hlaba’Nkunzi adopted the same character as Ravenscourt, being incredibly habituated to the vehicle movements or trackers that would be following her tracks. It was also humorous that she would often not even lift her head whilst being tracked until the trackers almost tripped over her. On one occasion I can recall tracking Hlaba’Nkunzi, we followed a prominent drag mark on the road, which was a clear indicator that the predator had killed her prey moved it to a thicket or hoist it into a tree. We followed the tracks a short distance from the road. However we just were not able to see where she dragged the carcass further. We circled a small bush for several minutes dumb founded to where she had disappeared to, only to realize after walking around the bush we suddenly caught a glimpse of her tail in the bush that we circled for several minutes. We were most likely only a few feet away from her the entire time. She was fast asleep in the bush; her tail gave her presence away. In addition one of her young cubs was lying with her in the thicket. It was pointless trying to see her from the vehicle until she emerged for a drink of water. It was a feeling of being confident that we had a mutual respect for each other. I certainly loved viewing her, as she would always put up a graceful pose in some of the most incredible light. I wondered if she knew how many times she was liked, loved or shared her beauty with millions to see on social media pages. She endured some tough times that we always rooted for her, we all had a connection and every guide would have a good story to tell, often more than one. She successfully raised her last young male cub to adulthood and soon after he become independent, it was noticeable that she had aged and succumbed to several injuries that she struggled to overcome. A wound on her ear just never healed and ended up losing her left ear as it become rotten flesh. Two years ago, she had a skirmish with a neighbouring territorial leopard, Hukumuri. After the brief fight, her right paw never healed either, which was limiting her to climb trees as effectively with large carcasses. As she continued to age she took in her stride and I think she knew it as she would often lie next to the road and sleep for several days in the same position. I felt sorry for her however it is not our place to decide when a wild animal is ready to leave us. Our perception of viewing them being injured can be difficult as we think that they may struggle to survive, however a few days later you will find the same animal in good health and they overcome injuries very quickly. They are resilient to injuries, far more so than our domestic pets which we often relate wildlife to sometimes. As time progressed we did not see much of Hlaba’Nkunzi. As she departed from her last litter, she moved her territory further north and east. There was evident pressure from a new female, Schotia. Schotia is her daughter that I saw 6 years ago. My first sighting of Hlaba’Nkunzi with her young female cub that was in the grass.

As the tide of power shifted from mother to daughter, Schotia would not recognize her mother or show any affection towards her. Once leopards become independent after several years they will often fight to the death for territory, even though they may be related.

Two weeks ago, a report surfaced that a leopard had been killed by the lion coalition known as the Matimbas. Strangely enough many of us had a feeling that Hlaba’Nkunzi had already passed on as we rarely saw her for several weeks prior to the incident being reported. It always is tough hearing news of wildlife passing on, particularly as leopards become prominent figures of wildlife we encounter in the area, we become part of their lives too. I spent many hours photographing Hlaba’Nkunzi. I would often track her on my own, looking for her in the hope to have a glimpse of her cubs or find her lounging in a large marula tree. The time I spent with her in the wild could easily be equated to time I have spent with good friends over several years. Hlaba’Nkunzi was a queen of the bush and I will certainly miss my friend, however I have many photographs to remember her and often whilst driving around I will still reminisce on the stories I had with her. ‘Hlaba’Nkunzi may you be a guiding light for many more leopards to thrive in the wild forever, as I will always be looking for them’.

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