Two days ago I was taking some friends to check the leopard trap in the afternoon. We drove up to a stream, from which it is only about 200m to the cage (which is not visible at this point). Not wanting to cross the stream, we got out and started walking towards the cage. As we crested the side of the stream, a guttural roar echoed down the kloof and rippled through us like the after-shocks of an earth tremor. The last time I had heard something similar was when we had darted the female leopard in March.
We have the leopard! I thought to myself.
“Quick, get in the landrover, I want to get to the cage as quickly as possible!” I said to the group. We drove up towards the cage, which I envisioned would be occupied by a rippling, pacing, angry leopard. Imagine my surprise when I first glimpsed the cage it was empty! The door was wide open.
We walked up to the cage. Some tracks led up towards the cage, but as the surface was hard, I was unsure if it was leopard or baboon. We heard nothing more from the now silent valley, and with other tasks at hand we called off our afternoon adventure.
The next day we decided to walk up the valley beyond the cage. As soon as we approached the cage a huge pug-mark in the dry sand caught my attention. These were clearly the footprints of a large male leopard, and it became clear that they were fresh and that he had bypassed the cage by springing over the low bushes placed on either side. We had evidently disturbed him the previous afternoon – we must have been within a hundred meters of this most beautiful of cats, but like shadows in the dark, he had melted away leaving only echoes in our imagination.
We followed the tracks for about a kilometer up the valley, before we lost them. Barking dassies indicated a predator in the surrounding hills, and we could see no sign of Black Eagle or Jackal Buzzard – the main reason the dassies bark.
This is the closest we have come to catching the male leopard. Researchers have said they have seen tracks of leopards that have been caught in these cages bypassing the cages – so this smart leopard may wear his satellite necklace and the secrets there-in a while longer yet.