Tuesday, 20 October 2009

17th & 18th October – Loads of Leopards!

The weekend in the bush went down pretty well, and the camp remained full, and all the guests got to see some special sightings, especially on the leopard front with 9 sightings of 6 different leopards over the two days.

Even with all the leopards around over the last while, I struggled to find one on Saturday morning, and after coming up empty handed in the north, I headed down to Vielmetter but didn’t have any luck there either. In fact, I didn’t have a great deal of luck with the big game for much of the morning; only four buffalo bulls crossed the road in front of me before disappearing again. Despite this, there was some good general game around; lots of kudu, some waterbuck, the omnipresent impalas, warthog, steenbok, two herds of zebras, and several sightings of giraffe, including one female with a baby.
Andrew had relocated on that large herd of buffalo north of Java dam, Godfrey found a large group of twenty buffalo bulls, there were two elephant herds around, and Elliot spent the morning tracking the three Mahlathini male lions (which he eventually found at a dry pan west of Scholtz airstrip), but this didn’t help me as I was looking for leopards (some of my guests were only at Motswari for one night)! I had given up, and was slowly making my way back towards camp feeling a bit dejected when one of the guides up north radioed in that he had found a leopard! It was Kuhanya female leopard, and she was located resting up a large weeping boer-bean tree at Concrete crossing. I didn’t need to think twice and I made my way there by-passing a distant breeding herd of elephants, waterbuck and many impala! I arrived to find Kuhanya comfortably perched in the shady bow of the tree, and looking quite content in the cool shade. She lifted her head ever now and then to have a look at us, but surprisingly ignored the noisy squirrel that was springing around the tree chattering his alarm calls.

The morning had heated up quite a bit, so we headed back to camp, albeit a bit late! On the way we got many more impala, and then some more giraffe, warthog and a hyena at trade entrance dam. The hyena had chosen to cool itself off by sleeping in the water, but got up and moved off after a few minutes. There were also two buffalo feeding in the riverbed opposite camp during breakfast.
The day remained hot, and the mercury reached mid-thirties. I decided to head down towards the area where Elliot had left the three Mahlathini males, knowing that they wouldn’t move far, if at all, on such a hot day, and with such fat bellies! It was a bit quiet in the eastern section due to the dryness, but we saw some nice raptors, impala, steenbok, a herd of zebra and then arrived to find the three male lions still resting in the same spot. I sound like a broken down record saying this again, but I (and all of the guides in fact) just can not get over how the behaviour of the Mahlathini males have changed over the last three or four weeks – they have become almost as relaxed as any other lions in the area. Even when they had their giraffe kill six weeks back, they would quickly jump and move off behind a bush if you got too close – now they barely even wake up when you reposition the land rover in a sighting – and let us not even go back 6 months when they arrived in our area and would run at the sound of a vehicle driving over a bush 50m away! It has been quite a remarkable and an extremely pleasing turn around in these cats – and they are turning into some of our favourite lions. The other thing in their size; they have grown tremendously in the last few months, and are getting bigger and more confident every month. I think that they might already be as big as the Timbavati males in terms of body size, but still only have small manes - give them another two or three years and they are going to be the undisputed kings of the north!
After leaving them resting in the shade, I headed back north to where Herald had relocated Kuhanya female leopard in the same position as this morning. She had climbed down the tree and was lying grooming on the ground before she eventually got mobile to the east. She went static for a while, then got mobile just as I arrived in the sighting. She didn’t make it easy for us to follow her as she was criss-crossing a small drainage line through some thick bush, but we managed to keep up with her until she went and lay on a termite mound as the sun set behind her – not a bad way to end the day!
She got up and headed north, and I followed her for a while longer as she approached the area where I had watched her mom, Mbali, catch a steenbok a few weeks back. Kuhanya went to the same termite mound and climbed right to the top to survey her surrounds. She soon spotted a potential meal and darted off in its direction. It was a duiker that ran back south, so Kuhanya anticipated its movement and circled around to try and cut it off. Although it would have been great to follow her on the hunt, we decided to let her do it in peace, as the bush was a bit thick along the drainage line, and crashing over the bushes would have spoilt it for her; besides, it was just getting dark and we don’t use spotlights on the cats when they are hunting.
Besides the cats, there was also the large breeding herd of buffalo at Mbali dam, as well as two elephants near our airstrip.

Sunday morning was a good one in the north for our guides (although it was a bit frustrating for me, as I seemed to be missing all of the good stuff!) with a good number of leopards about and in fact, there were seven different leopards reported on the northern property of Peru during the course of the day!

The first leopards that were reported were found by Palence as he was making his way towards the three Mahlathini male lions that were found resting near Mvubu crossing. Palence found a pair of leopards that he thought might be a mating pair, as it was the large Argyle male leopard who was pursuing an unidentified, but slightly nervous female leopard. Sadly our hopes of seeing this couple mating were short lived as they parted ways and Argyle male headed to the east. Palence and Andrew got to see them before both leopards were lost. Andrew was driving out of the area when he came across a third leopard; and unidentified young male leopard, but he too was a bit nervous and wasn’t pursued as he moved south away from Madash dam.

I went to have a look at the Mahlathini male lions while Godfrey and Elliot tried to relocate the Argyle male leopard, but the lions were lying in an inaccessible area – it was open, but we had a distant visual of them. They had moved a few kilometers from yesterday’s position back into the heart of their ‘territory’, but spent all day resting in the area. It was cool and cloudy, and they were well fed, so they had no reason to move off!
In the interim, another guide had bumped into the Argyle male leopard sleeping on Sohebele dam wall a kilometer or so east of where he was last seen. Godfrey and Giyani watched him for a short while before he got up and headed into some tricky terrain to the north of the dam wall. Godfrey went around to try ad relocate but had no luck, although he did find a fresh drag mark from another young male leopard. I tried to look from the opposite side, and spotted a leopard moving across the riverbed to the western rocky bank. I drove closer to see if he would come out, and then saw a leopard run across a small clearing which I thought was strange for Argyle male. I got closer and the leopard stopped to look at me, and I could see that it wasn’t the Argyle male, but rather it was the young male who must have been chased away by the dominant male of the area, and there was no argument over this! We tried again to find the kill, but it was dragged into a thicket that was unsafe to walk into, so we left the area for the morning.

My other frustration was going to the northern hyena den after hearing that all four cubs were outside, but I arrived to find no sign of any hyenas. I did however come across two large bull elephants on our airstrip. The one male had particularly impressive tusks, and both were collared individuals that form part of some elephant research taking place within the area.

Herald had gone south for the morning and besides finding a large breeding herd of elephants with at least 15 babies, he also got to see Rockfig Jnr female leopard just south of Double Highway. She had been found earlier with a fresh duiker kill that she had hoisted up a tree while she lay resting on the ground below it. There were also three sightings of buffalo this morning; one of a large breeding herd north of Makulu dam, and then two groups of buffalo bulls. The elephant males were quite prevalent up north with four groups of elephant bulls being seen. Other general game included the usual antelopes, some giraffe, hippos and zebra.

The afternoon saw another four leopard sightings being reported up north, but the Motswari guides only responded to two of them. Early in the drive, Andrew found Kuhanya female leopard resting up a marula tree right next to the road; I wish all our leopards were as considerate as that! She spent the entire afternoon resting on a low branch and posing for photos. I slowly made my way into the area, seeing some impala, kudu, waterbuck, a fish eagle with a fish, some nice birds, steenbok and baboons on the way. I arrived at the leopard sighting, and while I was watching Kuhanya, she was constantly awake and looking about, and I was sure she was going to climb down soon, but a couple of guides went through the sighting afterwards and she remained up in the tree.
The three Mahlathini male lions had not moved far, but they had at least moved into and accessible area and we got to see them quite nicely, even if they were fast asleep! One of the lions did get up and move a few meters, but soon dropped back to the floor and went to sleep.
From there, we found a small herd of about 15 elephants east of Madash dam, but something spooked them as we arrived and they all started screaming and gathering in a circle as if threatened, but within a minute calm was restored and they carried on feeding; I don’t know if it had to do with the buffalo bulls that were resting 20m away from them, or what had gone wrong.

I left the elephant and went to check at Sohebele dam to see if there was any sign of leopard there; Herald had earlier seen a male leopard resting on the rocks, but thought it was a young male. When I arrived my tracker spotted a large leopard resting in the riverbed below the rocks, and I could identify him as Argyle male leopard, so we knew it was worth going closer, and ‘worth it’ it was! He was lying in the open in all his glory (he is my current favourite leopard, so you will excuse my bias towards him!). he got up to move when Herald came to join me, but simply went and lay in the sand in the middle of the riverbed, and we left him to rest there. Elliot later found the remains of an impala up one of the weeping boer-beans on the western bank, so we will have to follow up and se what we can find tomorrow.
We all headed back to camp, and I had a nice sighting of a leveret (a baby scrub hare) suckling milk from its mother – not something I have seen before! So our leopards are back in force, but I am starting to get a bit concerned as to the whereabouts’ of the Sohebele pride of lions – there have not even been any tracks for the last 5 or 6 days for the sub adults, and nothing for the adult lioness for almost 2 weeks! We can only hope that they are all alright and will return soon.

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