Around three and a half months ago we saw The Nhlanguleni Female mating with The Senegal Bush Male, which means that due to the length of a leopard’s gestation period of about 110 days, it is time that she will have given birth to cubs. We all have our guesses, as rangers and trackers, where we think she might be denning; if denning at all? Tracker Advice and I have noticed a pattern over the last five years with the Nhlanguleni Female where she often dens her brand new cubs in the Sand River first before moving them to one of a number of nearby clusters of big granite boulders.
You can then imagine our curiosity when we heard ranger Robbie Ball call in on the radio that he had seen a female leopard in the Sand River in the heart of the Nhlanguleni Female’s territory, with what he was pretty certain were fresh suckle marks and a heavy milk pouch, suggesting that this leopard might have given birth!!! Is it her? Is she denning there again?
After recently watching “The Great Dance: A Hunter’s Story”, a movie about the San Bushman Hunter Gathers and how they hunt using their innate skill of tracking, I have been eager to learn more about the language of tracking, the relationship between the tracks, the animals and the land. Essentially learning how to dance with the tracks. This was a perfect way to try to figure out the Nhlanguleni Female’s dance over the previous few days.
The next day Advice, another tracker Phendulo and I went to investigate where Robbie last saw her. The sandy Southern channel of the river was covered in many different tracks of her, some old and some new. Meaning she has been in this area for a while or at least using that path frequently. Still not convinced, the trackers thought she might have had a kill nearby and the tracks were leading to and from that as the tracks we first found were all leading to a puddle of water.
“She came here to drink at least two times, she may have a kill down there.” Advice says while pointing to where the tracks came from.
Instead of following the tracks in the direction she was going, we decided to turn around and follow them back to see where she had come from, with the idea that there may be a carcass that way. It wasn’t long before we saw what looked like a drag mark in the sand. Could this be her dragging a carcass to hide it from vultures or other scavengers? Our excitement mounting, it was only when we got closer that Advice and Phendulo pointed out that it was in fact a crocodile moving to another stretch of the river.
“Look here Jess, you can see the webbed feet of the crocodile walking down into the river, it is the tail dragging on the ground here. It is looking for more water to hunt in,” explains Advice.
We carry on backtracking and notice more and more tracks of the Nhlanguleni Female. Now in different directions not just to the waterhole.
“She has walked past many water puddles, so she is not looking for water otherwise she would have stopped to drink here or there.” Advice says while pointing at her tracks and walking past other puddles.
They scratch their head with a smile, we start to believe that she is down here for a reason, not for water or with a carcass but for a potential den with her cubs in it.
We followed the direction that most of the tracks were leading to. They all channel into a very rocky and thick Matumi bush. The same bush Advice and I have seen her den her cubs in before. We walked softer, slower, no one saying a word but we all know what these tracks are pointing towards. The hairs on my arms started to rise. We were so close to finding her. We decided to stop at a distance from the boulders and listened. We could hear distant squirrel alarm calls beyond where we thought the den was and very likely to be at her. We decided the best thing to do now was to not go any further, turn around and leave as if the Nhlanguleni Female was nearby and returning to her brand new cubs, we did not want to stress her out or get caught too close to her den as she returns.
Is this the den? Maybe dancing with wild will lead you to what you are in search of…
Stay tuned as we hope to have some more good news for you in the near future.