I have been a part of the Londolozi Family for five years now, with the most recent two working remotely. It’s been such an interesting change, from my daily walks past a bushbuck on my way to the office and living in such a wild place to now staying outside this sanctuary and having the chance to experience Londolozi with fresh eyes. I recently returned for a week to reconnect with the Londolozi Creative Hub team and it really did feel like it was my first time visiting this incredible place.
Yes I know the people and I have memories scattered across the lodge – but the simplest things became the big things for me again. A giraffe on my game drive had in me in absolute awe, like I had never seen one before. The views from the Camp Decks had their own, big presence and stole my full attention, and the nature soundscape, with a noticeable element of quiet, were always welcomed.
But I had an even deeper excitement, one that would give me butterflies thinking about… seeing a leopard again!
Although I have been fortunate to see many leopards at Londolozi, I felt like a child before Christmas knowing that I might see a leopard in my week back at Londolozi. And then I saw them – the ultimate leopard sighting – a pair of leopards mating one evening. As the spotlight lit up the rosettes on the coat of one of the leopards – I lost my breath – the moment I had been waiting for!
With new eyes I got to feel the emotions of witnessing these spectacular creatures metres from the vehicle again, an experience which is hard to put down into words. What is it about leopards that keep us so mesmerised?
Of course they are captivating to the eye, but their presence sparks something ancient within us that keeps us intrigued and wanting more. So this month we have decided to celebrate the Legacy of the Leopards of Londolozi, and to take some time to look back at how generations of this incredible cat have had the same profound impact on people since 1979 at Londolozi – when our love affair with leopards all began. But first, let’s hear from the Head Ranger himself, here are his thoughts on viewing leopards at Londolozi…
“I can very clearly remember the first leopard I saw at Londolozi. It was the Nanga female and she was fast asleep on top of a granite boulder on the banks of the Manyelethi River. As we approached in the Land Rover she did not stir and even when she opened her eyes her demeanour remained unchanged. What became evident very quickly was a level of trust between her and the vehicle that I had not witnessed in leopards before. I learnt how her mother had been called the Nyelethi Female, named after the very river that her daughter was now resting alongside, and held territory in the northern parts of the reserve until she disappeared in 2011. The Nanga female now controlled this area ,and would continue to do so for a number of years, and those rangers and trackers that came before me loved to tell stories about the two of them together.
When you see a leopard at Londolozi you are instantly captured and it’s hard to focus on anything else in that moment. It’s not just being in the presence of one of Africa’s apex predators or the beautiful rosetted golden coat that keeps you mesmerised – it’s more than that. It’s a step back in time. Through decades of sensitively viewing these mysterious animals, they are at the point where they do not react to the vehicle in any way and treat us as a mere presence that doesn’t require attention. This means we can sit in silence, watching them and get transported into their world. Every scar tells a story of a battle fought, tattered ears – a sign of age, interesting birthmarks separate different individuals and rich golden coats that show resemblance to that of their grandmothers. Story lines emerge as you trace back along their ancestral lines, some of their relatives you have seen and others are just famous stories of a time before. You are reminded about the journey towards restoration that has taken place across this land and in that moment, when your eyes happen to meet theirs, you can’t help but become starstruck.
Leopards have taught me to be still and revel in the present. I’ll never forget joining a sighting of the Flat Rock male one morning on the banks of the Sand River. It was one of those mornings where the sky was bright blue without a cloud in sight and the sun was warm, but not too hot. The Flat Rock male was patrolling his territory when he went down to the river for a drink. Once finished, he curled up into a ball and fell asleep on a sandy beach next to the gently flowing river. The Matumi trees towered over him creating a dappled light and the whole scene together was perfection. I remember thinking how I could spend the entire day there quite easily. I’m under no allusions that life as a leopard out here is not always easy but in the constant quest for survival they get to explore this reserve, albeit with different intentions, and when you are on a walk in the bush being present, whether you are a leopard or a human is key. Watching where leopards choose to rest during the day has taught me the value of being alone with my thoughts and the importance of slowing down.” ~ James Souchon, Head Ranger
Dave Varty explains the first sighting of the Mother Leopard beautifully in his book The Full Circle…
“We had worked right through the night. As I drove back to camp, all I could think of was getting my hands around a warm mug of coffee and then crawling into bed. But as the dawn broke I stopped to look around me. In the space of two months the landscape had changed. I could see across a mosaic of open grasslands and bushveld trees for perhaps a kilometre. And on lower ground a wetland vlei had filled with water which had not been there two days previously.
And then I noticed something different. Were my tired eyes playing tricks on me? Was it just the dappled light under the canopy of the tree? No, it was spots. I picked up my binoculars. And then I saw her. Not running away in fear. Not concerned at all. Just sitting and preening herself. She seemed oblivious to my presence. Then, she turned and looked directly at me and my heart stopped at her beauty and my fear that she would disappear and we would not see a leopard for another 10 years. Then she turned back to her task. But this time not to preen herself, but the two little cubs at her side.
I could hardly contain my excitement. We had been clearing the invasive bush for several months – for the previous six weeks we had worked night and day to make the most of a bulldozer that had been lent to us. At first little seemed to change. Then we noticed that grass was starting to grow again where we had taken out the trees. And now we had our vleis filling with water and a mother leopard had arrived from nowhere.
For us it was sheer magic. Or was it a gift from nature? It was one of the first lessons that I learnt in the bushveld. If you work with nature, she works with you in a forgiving and enduring partnership.
That first sighting of a leopard was a turning point in our lives. It marked the beginning of an upward spiral of success. Our safari business would become known all over the world because of the Leopards of Londolozi. And we were on the way to a non-stop adventure.”
Dave Varty – Full Circle
The Mother Leopard defined and guided Londolozi’s story. It’s hard to believe that before the 1970’s leopard viewing was scarce, these animals were considered elusive, skittish and would keep well out of sight. Being an animal that can become invisible when it does not want to be seen, meant that they remained a sort of enigma. All of this was about to change on one fateful day in 1979 when a young female leopard was found at Londolozi that did not run from humans. Although still shy and uncertain, she tolerated their presence and it was this gift that gave the Varty brothers the assurance in their belief that respect, care and veneration for the wild could indeed be a viable new kind of business model.
The presence of this leopard could not have been better timed, as she strengthened the message that man and nature can trust each other forming a mutually beneficial partnership for good.
It was John Varty and tracker Elmon Mhlongo that then spent the next 12 years of her life following her, documenting the Mother Leopard’s movements and trials through film. This resulted in the first documentary of its kind; The Silent Hunter. JV and Elmon Mhlongo captured many moments that had never before been witnessed before let alone filmed. They managed to capture the first ever footage of leopards mating, a sighting which we are privileged to witness in person now in broad daylight. Over this period they saw numerous cubs too as she had no less than 9 litters in her lifetime. It was this time with her and her offspring that rangers and trackers began to learn how to habituate the young leopards. Slowly an incredible kinship with wild leopards formed.
Since then Londolozi has enjoyed generations of, almost unrivalled, leopard viewing in the heart of one of the most wildlife-rich reserves in the world. The lineage of that original female is still being followed and recorded in the current population of Londolozi’s leopards.
Currently we are viewing seven generation descendants of this leopard, which include the Three River 2:3 young male and the Tortoise Pan 4:3 male. The average number of offspring successfully raised by a female leopard in her lifetime is 3-4, to date the most successful female on record is the Mother Leopard herself, who raised no less than 12 cubs to independence!
This leopard was the start of the most iconic lineage of the Leopards of Londolozi and it is thanks to her that people are visiting Londolozi today. The Mother Leopard woke us up to the divine power of Mother Nature and guided Londolozi into a deep connection with all wild animals.
Over the last 4 decades, this dynasty has been chronicled by the many guides and trackers, past and present, who have worked at Londolozi. Each year we add to this growing body of work as the Leopards of Londolozi continue to enthral, entertain and inspire our guests and staff. As a mecca for leopard viewing on the continent and with a dedicated team of naturalists recording these leopards’ lives daily, the outcome is a depth and knowledge of their stories that is unsurpassed.
What we thought we knew about leopards continues to shift as our knowledge of these cats grows ever deeper. We’ve seen the 3:4 leopard also known as Manana adopt and raise her daughter’s cub to adulthood and later watched as the then independent male allowed his grandmother to feed on his kills as she aged and weakened. We’ve seen as many as 8 leopards in one sighting, where previously they were thought to be strictly solitary animals, only meeting for mating purposes or when raising cubs. We’ve seen two males taking turns to mate with one female, watched two adult leopards kill a warthog together and seen leopards feed alongside hyenas on a kill when no one believed they would tolerate such a thing.
Tracking the leopards of then to tracking the leopards of now is a fascinating art. Some leopards of the early lineages remain, whilst new leopards show up too. Owing to the dynamic nature of leopard populations and their territorial behaviour; individual animals move into areas where they can secure a territory for themselves. On occasions this means they move away from Londolozi, never to be seen again, whilst at times new leopards arrive and establish themselves. Because of this and because of the massive 6 million acre wilderness system of which we form a part, we know that the leopard gene pool of Londolozi and the greater African population only continues to grow stronger.
At a time when the future of leopards is severely threatened and where they are persecuted around the world, the important safe haven that Londolozi provides for these magnificent cats becomes ever more important. We have been fortunate enough to work with the incredible Panthera organisation who have studied the leopards in the Sabi Sand Reserve. Founded in 2006, this incredible organisation has devoted their time to conservation of the world’s 40 species of wild cats and the vast ecosystems they inhabit.
“The leopard density in the central Sabi Sand – of which Londolozi forms a major part – is roughly 12 animals per 100 square kilometres, which ranks amongst the highest for the species anywhere in their range. Upon comparison with previous studies, this number certainly puts the leopard density on Londolozi and surrounds as the highest in any protected area. The numbers are estimated to be close to the upper limit attainable by the species.” ~ Panthera
These animals have intimately chosen to share their story with us and thus woven ours into theirs. Through moments of beauty, mystery and exhilaration for 44 years we have been made to fall in love with these big cats time and time again. We trust that you may cross a few of their paths whilst on safari with us and we hope that you too get to share in some incredible encounters with one of the world’s most iconic cats…