Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Leopard: Face to Face and On Foot.

It was the 24 October, sky grey, stars fading like sugar crystals in grey coffee, the sun only minutes from awakening over the eastern Kougas. We'd been awake since 4am. Craig (a volunteer from the UK), Robyn (researching thermal tolerance in birds) and I had just finished opening the mist nets for the early morning ringing session around a stand of old Sutherlandia. Robyn was keeping an eye on the net for early birds, while Craig and I headed off further south up Sugarbird Valley on an old path dying under the regrowth of grass. We were headed for a particularly steep section, almost ravine like, a favourite hang-out for a family of Cape Rockjumpers, although Verreaux's Eagle had been seen to hunt dassies here too from time to time.

I glanced up at the crags, at an overhanging crag the tweenie in me had often dreamed of rock-climbing one day. An unfamiliar bump silhouetted about a hundred meters away against the skyline made me stop. Despite the sense of urgency that lay with our task of attempting to catch rockjumpers, I swung off my backpack and rummaged around for my binoculars.

“I'm sure its just an odd-shaped Klipspringer” I thought to myself as I lifted my binos to my face, only to be greeted with the so unexpected view of a patterned feline upon the rocks. I was silent for a moment as my brain buzzed through a reality check before gasping “It's a leopard!” to Craig, who was waiting patiently behind me. We crouched down while I pointed out the location, giving Craig time to find his optics. Then we just sat on the sand, looking up at the cat that was sitting comfortably, looking down at us.

Without cameras, for maybe a minute we sat soaking in the view of what I took to be a sleek female, before I dug out the walkie-talkie to radio Robyn. “If you want to see a leopard, you better come quick!”

Less than a minute's walk away, for some reason the leopard did not like the view of another human approaching, moving its head from side to side the way a nervous cat might, and with Robyn only meters from us the leopard got up, took one last look at us and slunk away over the rocks. Robyn hadn't seen it and was gutted and green -  it was Craig's third day in South Africa and only the Brit's second day at Blue Hill.

A few hours later, after laying out the traps, I was on a slow patrol up the side of the valley looking for the rockjumpers which had been avoiding our traps. Perched in the shade of a rock, I was distracted from my task at hand by the barking of dassies from a nearby rocky ridge. Views of their furry backs indicated their alarms were not directed at me, and I returned to my task of sweeping my binos over boulders on the opposing slope when out of the corner of my eye dassies started cascading down the rocky outcrop. Next thing, not more than 30 meters away, a leopard popped out onto the rocks above me. This close the leopard didn't look that pretty at me anymore. Despite my position, the cat had spotted me almost immediately. She watched me for a few long seconds before turning around and disappearing behind the ridge.

Now I was nervous – had she disappeared to find a track down to me, or had it fled? Cape Mountain Leopards are small in comparison to their cousins from the savannas, but she'd be able to do some damage all the same. After a few minutes of her not appearing, I made my way slowly up to the ridge where she had stood. There was no more sign of her. Instead, from this location I could hear the weak yelping of a dassie. I tracked among the rocks until I found the source of the noise emanating from beneath a bear-sized boulder. At the entrance of a bolt hole there were scratch and pug marks – the leopard had clearly been trying to dig up some breakfast.

Of the leopard there was no more sign, but after three years living in the Fynbos, criss crossing it from west to east, from beach to peaks, walking at least every second day along trails with tantalizing evidence of their existence, I'd finally achieved an oh-so-rare sighting of the top predator of the Fynbos and Cape Fold Mountains.

The following are a selection of some of the choice shots of the leopards at Blue Hill Nature Reserve. The collared leopards are part of a research project that have shown territory sizes for this regions are huge - almost twenty thousand hectares for the female (e.g. an area 10x20km), and twice that and more for some of the males. This means the 2300ha Blue Hill Nature Reserve is only about 10% of the territory size of one of these leopards. Most of their territories lie outside protected areas - overlapping farms used for hunting or for livestock, where farmers use a range of lethal control measures. Since their territories are so large, we often go several weeks without a camera catching a glimpse, and with tracks and trails bare of their distinctive pugmarks, so each photo is a trophy for us and a celebration that they are still alive.

The collared leopards use the area most frequently, but we have also caught glimpses of two uncollared leopards:

Lady Leopard as we call her, collared in 2011, she is about 4 years old now

The story of Lady's capture can be read here:

Dassie - Leopard Food

Lady Leopard with cub - see post on left hand side

A rare shot of Lady out and about during the day

Butch - the resident male leopard. Collared initially in the Baviaanskloof itself a long way from Blue Hill.

Princess - or the New Female. It is rare for two female leopards to overlap a territory. Princess seemed to be the resident female for about a year before the return of Lady - whom we'd presumed had been killed in the interim.

Big Boy. We have only a few photos of this massive male leopard, and suspect that our property is marginal to the core of his territory. 

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