Friday, 25 September 2009

23rd & 24th September – Leopards Galore!

The last two days have no doubt belonged to the leopards of the northern Timbavati, with nine sightings of no fewer than six different leopards in the last three drives!

Wednesday morning’s game drive was actually ‘leopard-free’, but that was because we were most interest in the lions, and in particular the presence of the five Sohebele lions less than 100m from the three Mahlathini male lions on their buffalo kill! By the time the Motswari stations had arrived, the Sohebele lions had moved off to the east, and while out of sight of the three larger Mahlathini males, they were still a too bit close for comfort knowing how previous meetings between these lions have ended up. The Mahlathini males were probably too fat to pay too much attention to the Sohebele pride, but were well aware of the fact that they hadn’t moved too far their buffalo kill!

I was taking it easy in the morning as it was my guest’s last game drive, so after the lions, and having ticked off two buffalo bulls just outside camp, and two sightings of elephant bulls near Argyle dam, I decided to go and drive a bit in our eastern section for a change. There were two large elephant bulls near Kudu pan, but the general game was a bit quiet. The two Kori bustards were near Karan’s Big Dam again, but overall it was a bit quiet. I then headed into the north eastern traversing, and had a half-a-second glimpse of an elusive serval that ran off as we drove past. There was also a herd of seven wildebeest near Nyati pan, a rare sighting these days! I think the last time that I saw wildebeest whilst on drive was in April; the herds that we would normally see down south during the winter months are not around this year, so it was good to see up north again. I have seen more wild dog sightings in my two and a half years at Motswari than I have wildebeest!

There were also sightings of a large breeding herd of elephant at Mbali dam during the morning, a few giraffe, impala, kudu and waterbuck. We also went to have a look at the hippo pod at Peru dam, and just after breakfast, a small breeding herd of elephants came wandering past the clearing in front of the lodge, as Herald was returning from his bush walk, so he and his guests had a great experience of watching these giants on foot!

The afternoon started off pretty well for us, especially when Petros (my tracker) told me that he had seen Argyle male leopard sleeping in a tree not 200m from reception while he was bringing the land rover to reception to pick up the guests! This relaxed male leopard did however jump down from the tree and wandered off to the west and I arrived in sighting as he was crossing the airstrip, but a nearby hyena meant that he ran across quickly to the woodland on the western side where he continued towards the Sohebele riverbed. Herald relocated him on the western side and followed him for a while as he headed towards our northern boundary. He did temporarily climb up another marula tree, but soon descended and headed off to the north, seemingly on quite a mission.

Godfrey just missed out on seeing this male leopard, but another leopard had been found on the rocks north of Vyboom dam. Sadly that leopard moved off into the riverine thickets before either Godfrey or I could get there. Not to worry, five minutes later Godfrey found Kuhanya female leopard sleeping up a marula tree next to the road, not far from Buffalo pan! I went and joined Godfrey and after a while of watching Kuhanya sleeping, she started to yawn and soon climbed down from the tree and headed north. After a few minutes of scent-marking she spotted a scrub hare and stalked closer every time the hare put its head down. The hare disappeared behind a fallen knobthorn tree, and Kuhanya used this opportunity to race in and spring over the fallen tree, but she was far too slow and the hare was off in a flash, so Kuhanya admitted defeat and carried on into the darkening night. Hind sight is a wonderful thing, and I should have stayed with her, as about 10 minutes later she killed a duiker and took it up a nearby tree to feed.

I too admitted defeat and carried on to look for the Sohebele pride that had wandered past Johannes while he was having a sundowner near Peru dam. The adult lioness had earlier separated from the youngsters and was seen by some other stations chasing vultures off the remains of the impala kill of the skittish leopard near Mbali dam. Unfortunately for her, the vultures had finished all but the bones and she didn’t get any reward. She was calling for the pride to the west of Johannes when the sub adults came walking in from the east, and away from the Mahlathini male lions who were still on their nearby buffalo kill. I didn’t have any luck relocating the Sohebele pride, so went to watch as all three of the Mahlathini male lions fed on the buffalo carcass that was now starting to smell as bad as you would imaging three day old, maggot infested buffalo meat to smell. Despite this, it was still a really nice sighting of them feeding again.

Up north, there were three breeding herds of elephant seen, a couple of buffalo bulls near Vyboom dam, two sightings of elephant bulls and some nice general game; giraffe, kudu, impala and waterbuck. Herald went south to go and see the relaxed Nhlangula male rhino north of Elephant dam (and later two other semi-relaxed rhinos were found in the north, but no Motswari vehicles responded), and on his way back north, Herald found the fifth leopard sighting of the afternoon when he came across Nkateko female leopard west of Machaton cottage. She was quite active, but he left her as she headed down into the Machaton riverbed.

Thursday started off with us hearing that the Sohebele pride of lions had been chased around by the Mahlathini male lions yet again, and as a result they had been split up into two groups, but thankfully all the individuals were accounted for; the adult lioness and the healthy male in one group, and the other two males and small lioness in the second. Herald found the two a kilometer or so west of the kill, and we arrived as they got mobile to the north. They seemed in a fair condition and were not injured in any fights that might have taken place. While following them, the lioness surprised us by climbing up a small marula tree! It was the first time I had seen an adult lion climb a tree, but she jumped down shortly afterwards and we had to leave them as the bush just got too thick to follow. The other three Sohebele lions were found back at the site of the now-finished buffalo carcass – the hyenas and vultures had finished everything – but they were looking a bit nervous, clearly knowing that the Mahlathini male lions were still around. The three young lions sat alert on a termite mound watching some of the nearby vultures, but one male soon got up and headed towards Mbali dam, and the other two followed, so we left them to it.

On the front of the large herbivores, Godfrey and Elliot got to see the Argyle male rhino up near Voël dam, but he sadly crossed over the Timbavati access road into Klaserie, and Elliot only got to see him at a distance, I never managed to get to the area. There was a small group of buffalo bulls just north of the lodge, and they were in the company of a small breeding herd of elephants that crossed west into Ingwelala. The large breeding herd of elephants was spread out to the west of Mbali dam, while a third herd of elephant was seen near Java dam by Herald. The other buffalo sightings were represented by a large group of over twenty buffalo bulls near Tamboti pan, and a lone buffalo bull up north near Xinatsi dam.

Our leopards his morning were alright, with the highlight being Nkateko female leopard down in the south. She was found with a steenbuck kill strung up in an Apple-leaf tree just north of Hide dam. She had been feeding for a while in the morning, but soon went to sleep in the comfortable branches of the tree she had chosen to protest her kill from the local hyena clan. In the north, I went to have a look at the male leopard with his impala kill west of Peru dam. The kill was still sitting up a knobthorn tree, but the leopard was lting hidden away just to the south. He moved off when we approached, and then we lost him, so we sat and waited, and soon his ears started twitching above the terpentine grass not 25m from us. He soon got up and wandered off to the north where we lost him again, so we left him in peace.

In the afternoon, I decided to head down south for a change of scenery considering the prominence of sightings in the north lately. My first stop was at Java dam where we have started pumping water once again, and it seems to have worked! The maintenance staff of Motswari reported seeing three lions at the dam, so we went and had a look and found the three young Sohebele lions resting in the shade at the dam. They had moved some distance from the morning’s position, and just spent the afternoon resting in the same spot. They occasionally showed some signs of life, but soon flopped back over into a slumber.

Carrying on south, I checked up on the hyena den, but for the umpteenth time found no signs of life there, so I am convinced that the cubs are dead or have been moved to a new den site. From there I headed straight to see Nkateko female leopard near Hide dam. She was sleeping next to her steenbuck kill, but roused just before sunset to start feeding, as seems to be her habit. She fed for a while and then I left her to go and have a drink and give the other guides a chance to see her.

Godfrey arrived at the sighting a short while later and it turned into a pretty special scene. Godfrey told me that suddenly Nkateko started hissing and growling, so he looked around and saw a large female leopard approaching, totally unphased by the vehicles. Both of the leopard’s ears were intact, so it wasn’t Rockfig female, but instead it was her previous daughter; Rockfig Jnr leopardess! This was the third time this month she has been seen on Vielmetter, and proved to be the best sighting of the lot. She snarled from the bottom of the tree, and after sniffing around jumped up and went straight for the steenbok carcass. Nkateko took exception to this and tried to stand her ground despite the massive size difference, and both leopards leapt at the opponent and collided in mid-air before rolling on the broad branches. Nkateko almost lost her balance, and while she prevented herself from falling, she couldn’t prevent Rockfig Jnr from stealing her kill. The bigger sister took the kill to the other side of the tree, and Nkateko managed to make a hasty retreat before the hyenas were drawn to the area by the commotion.

After my drinks, I went to go and have a look at this intruding leopard (who at the time was still unidentified) and arrived to find her feeding in the tree with the scavenging hyenas waiting patiently underneath the tree. From her spot patterns, I could ID the new leopard as Rockfig Jnr, and left her in to feed on her stolen meal. Nkateko had in the mean time scaled a nearby knobthorn and lay watching her meal disappear.

I was heading home when a radio call came through saying that a leopard had rocked up at Java dam and was lying on the small dam wall watching the nearby lions while they all lay staring back at the leopard! I couldn’t resist going to see this scene, and arrived to find the impressive but shy Java Dam female leopard lying there. She moved off when one of the vehicles got to close, but she simply went and lay a few meters away. She was looking decidedly well fed, and I suspect she had a nearby kill, and was just coming for a drink of water at the dam, but found the lions there and was not confident enough to approach. After about twenty minutes of waiting, she eventually edged closer to the water, and she soon realized that the lions were not interested in her, so she moved closer and confidently drank from the waterhole. It was by far and away my best sighting of this female. We sat about 20m from her as she drank, and she seemed quite happy with out presence. After she finished, she slunk back over the dam wall and moved off, and Steve left the scene with the lions flat-cat not far from the water – it is always special to see these two amazing species together in one sighting!

Barring the proliferation of leopards this afternoon, the other game was a bit quiet. I saw some impala and kudu, some nice raptors, but not a great deal else. There was another hyena running around near Vielmetter trough, but it was a bit quiet. The other Motswari guides saw a large breeding herd of elephants at Mbali dam, some elephant bulls west of Peru dam, a lone bull elephant near camp, and then while watching hippos at Peru dam, Elliot also saw another breeding herd of elephant.

And that rounded off another two absolutely fantastic days of game viewing at Motswari. I was driving four South African’s that have traveled to numerous lodges and reserves across the country, and they commented that they have never seen leopards like they have here at Motswari – and they are not even halfway through their stay! In their first three drives, they saw six different individual leopards – quite remarkable. Let us hope it continues!

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