It is normally quite exciting to read about all the wonderful  adventures and animals our rangers so diligently “blog” about, and since this normally happens in “real time” it makes for very entertaining reading.

Sometimes though, the memories goes back just a little into “yesteryear” and I thought maybe it could be quite a “fresh” idea to share some “old” stories on the blog every once in a wile…

I want to turn the clock back just about 11 years, and just about a year or two after beginning my first Big 5 guiding job on this very reserve. We got word of two female leopard cubs “abandoned” by their mother somewhere around Pretoriuskop Rest Camp in the Kruger National Park. During this time the Hoedspruit Cheetah Project was probably one of the only places who could attempt raising and successfully re-introducing leopard cubs into the wild. Since this is where we did most of our guiding from, I felt fairly “chuffed” with myself for being involved with this project during the latter stages just prior to release.

Anyway – nothing is ever easy where rehab of predators is concerned and the story basically begins when they were about two years old and after their very successful reintroduction onto the Kapama Game Reserve.

During this stage we had a student programme, for which I was responsible for, where wildlife and veterinary   students from all walks of life could come and have a 1 month experiential training phase on our reserve. As it was quite a huge responsibility and I was still fairly “young” I was under the watchful eye of a very well known wildlife “guru” who showed me the very “necessary” ropes.

Now… to fully understand the situation it is quite important to “elaborate” a bit about this earlier mentioned wildlife “guru”! A man of few words (let alone swear words), humble, highly skilled in all things “bush” (even threw knifes in self defense) and to say the least…a walking encyclopedia!

Being the first reserve to my knowledge to attempt a successful leopard rehab and release, it was quite obvious that we would want to follow the progress of our female leopards after their release. Both were collared with transmitters and I can even to the day remember their different frequencies on our very old, outdated and well worn omni- directional receiver. The “star” of my story was “No 15” who was by no means a shy or “skittish” cat but rather an unpredictable diva and somewhat “bitchy” to say the least! Her sister “No 19” was the quiet one of the two and mostly did her best to stay undetected … managed that quite well too.

So here we were, fully kitted out. Our “guru” with the receiver and antenna in his hands, me behind him with the rifle, and 13 overly enthusiastic wildlife students with all the latest photographic equipment (all bells and whistles attached} in single file behind me, pushing through some of the thickest riverine bush Kapama can offer, on our way to find our leopard.

I at this point I would like to mention that the only reason I was “blessed” to carry the rifle was because it was heavy and the “guru” didn’t want too! Also, I could for the life of me not ever distinguish the horrible screeching, scratching and annoying noises from the receiver from the “bleep- bleep” sounds one could “apparently” hear as the receiver picked up the transmitter around the leopards neck.

So the trouble begins… Now I am sure you can imagine that this is a kind of privilege bestowed on very few… even guides working in the industry today… and the “privilege”  we had that day was one I will probably not soon forget!

About 40 minutes into our adventure the “guru” informed us that he got the signal from the leopard and that she was not to far away… Obviously the pressure and excitement mounted and we could just barely control the 13 students behind us and every now and then a fairly “hostile” tongue lashing from me was the only way…

On we went, crouching… stopping… listening and watching the “guru” as he went about his business in trying to decipher the almost inaudible “signal” from the leopard. Now… when you know you are this close to a “possible” leopard on foot, you cannot help to notice the veins throbbing in your forehead and your heart beating in your ears. Wait, hang on..! This could maybe have been the scorching 40°C heat we were trekking in on our little “adventure”.

Anyway… after a couple of minutes the “guru” stopped abruptly… causing the train of students bumping into one another like dominos. Imagine now… since we left the vehicle, none of them had their eyes away from their cameras’ viewfinders for more than a couple of seconds at a time… too scared that they might miss this big moment when we actually get to view this leopard…

The confusion ended and we eagerly awaited instruction from the “guru”. He pointed towards something about 10 or 15 meters ahead of us and again the “tongue lashing” to gain control as the keen photographers all fell out of the line to get a picture of the leopard on foot…

Just some way off towards our left, on the slopes of a dry riverbed we spotted a fresh Impala kill obviously made by our quarry! At this stage I would like to remind everyone that a leopard could be one of the most dangerous predators… now add the fact that she was hand reared, with no real “respect” for humans and to top it all on a fresh kill… one word… TROUBLE!

Everything went deathly quiet (even the throbbing in our heads)… and as the “guru” scanned the area beyond the kill all hell broke loose… She came charging out of the bushes towards us from the left rear of our group with eyes flashing and growling noises that would scare the daylights out of the most seasoned game ranger, not to mention our 13 students and me that have barely witnessed any leopards in the wild, let alone an “obvious” annoyed one!

After what seemed to be “forever” I realized that I had the rifle and am probably responsible to get us out of this trouble. I was however so startled by the “guru” that had a complete personality change and was screaming, swearing and shouting… keeping no secrets in letting this poor female leopard know exactly what he thinks of her and where she should fly to… all the time swinging the antenna at her looking like a chopper about the lift off!!!

Round about the time I saw one of the students crouching to get a better picture of this certain “doom” awaiting us, I gathered my whit’s again and let off with some verbal abuse on him that would make a pirate seem like a Sunday school teacher, all the time trying to find the leopard in my sights. In a situation like this the last thing you want to do is let yourself look smaller!

I never did find her in my sights, and as I though I was now ready to be the hero and shoot she was no longer there, but turned around and disappeared as quickly as she came!

Slowly we started hearing the bush around us again and after some big sighs of relieve we left the area amazingly quickly!

That evening around the camp fire I asked the “guru” (transformed back to his former “quiet” self) if we were in any “real” trouble. His answer… Hell yes! It was close…

Johan Esterhuizen

Southern Camp

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