Seeing spots Veterans of the African bush, journalists Ann and Steve Toon join a specialist leopard-tracking safari in the heart of KwaZuluNatal. Will it leave them seeing spots or licking their wounds?
Steve and Ann Toon are wildlife photographers and photojournalists with a specialist interest in conservation issues and southern Africa. Their first book, Rhinos, was published in 2002 by Colin Baxter. Their latest book, Giraffes, is out later this year.
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here’s a storm coming! Ha ha ha.” This is Daryl. He has this way of ending every sentence with a chuckle – it is as infectious as his enthusiasm for everything. Don’t get him started on mice and frogs though. They are his two greatest passions, if you don’t count birds. He is the first person we’ve met who uses two bird identification guidebooks at the same time. Amazingly, the two books are identical. He refers to one as ‘my bedside copy’. However, his fervour for feathers is great for us – we notched up a dozen new birds yesterday; they were all hard-torecognise species that we would normally struggle to find, let alone identify. Before his chuckle has even tailed off, Daryl excitedly leaps onto the vehicle. Meanwhile,
we are rubbing the sleep from our eyes – it’s dark and the other guests at Mountain Lodge are still snug in their beds. “Have you got your jersey, Bernard? Ha ha ha.” He’s at it again – this time ribbing our tracker because he’s wrapped up against the morning chill. Yet the day will be another hot and humid one. It was the same yesterday, hence Daryl’s quip about the impending storm. It’s actually a running joke now, because the rains have been forecast to hit Maputaland for several days, yet the earth is still bone dry and the grass is still bleached blond. Although we’re keeping eyes peeled for two sidestriped jackals, which Daryl and Bernard spotted near the airstrip recently, we’re on a different mission. This isn’t your ordinary early morning wildlife drive. e
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e There are just the four of us, and we’re going at a reasonable lick to make it to a particular part of the reserve before sunrise. Our quarry is unlikely to hang around if temperatures soar, so we head straight past a herd of zebra, three beautiful nyala bulls and a lone buffalo standing by a wallow… There has been an important leopard research project at Phinda Private Game Reserve in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province for several years now. We’re on a specialist leopard-tracking safari that is linked to this initiative. A number of the leopards in the project are radio-collared, making it possible to track their exact whereabouts on the reserve using telemetry. And, if you’re very lucky, you can enter their world, even in extremely thick bush, to observe their natural behaviour up close. Daryl Dell, who is specialist ranger at Phinda, has been trained to use the same equipment the researchers use to track the leopards, and he feeds back information to the project’s staff about the sightings from the guided leopard safaris. He explains that we’re now heading for a part of the reserve where a female called Ngaya traditionally hangs out. She has small cubs, but her signal hasn’t been picked up for a while so she may have wandered off the reserve. Her previous cubs (two 18-month-old males) are also radio-collared and it is them we are on the trail of today. We’ve been going for an hour, and already spiders’ webs straddling the road have twice netted Steve – he is still picking off the strong, sticky strands from his face and hair. I’m mesmerised by an iridescent bug that’s hitched a ride with us and is now strolling around on my camera bag. At last we arrive in the sand forest, an extremely rare habitat that is a special feature of the reserve. “It’s
It’s just like the Lord of the Rings,” chuckles Daryl, pointing out giant torchwood and tamboti trees and a 1000-year-old Lebombo wattle just like the Lord of the Rings,” chuckles Daryl, pointing out giant torchwood and tamboti trees and a 1000year-old Lebombo wattle. He shows us orchids that grow on them, including, a pinhead orchid (Africa’s smallest) and, fittingly, a leopard orchid. “That’s stinkbushwillow,” he says. Some people say it smells like perfume; others, obviously less impressed, believe its odour resembles that of sweaty socks. Ha ha ha…” “Hear that?” Daryl says suddenly. “It’s a Tonga red squirrel. They’re special to see”. We finally spot the squirrel launching itself from a low branch. This is a first. We’ve been coming to South Africa for years and didn’t even know they existed. Now holding the aerial high above his head, Daryl starts listening for signals. He explains that the project started in 2002 partly because leopard viewing on the reserve was then so poor. “The project has even managed to change legislation in favour of leopards,” he says. “This is a high rainfall area. The bush is thick and there’s an abundance of prey, so we should have one of the highest densities in South Africa.” We hear a ‘blip’ above the crackles on the receiver. “That’s a really good signal.” We’ve picked up one of Ngaya’s grown-up cubs. He says it’s the one that’s more relaxed around vehicles and we start getting excited. Barnard, who’s been upfront on the tracker’s seat, hushes us. e
Top: Phinda specialist ranger Daryl Dell radiotracking leopard Second from top: Making tracks, the team rush to a leopard hotspot Second from bottom: Daryl Dell and tracker Bernard Mnguni looking for leopard spoor Bottom: Spot the difference: it’s not all about leopards at Phinda; Ann and Steve witness a thrilling cheetah chase
Leopard conservation In 2002, when the Mun-YaWana Leopard Project started in Phinda, leopard sightings were rare. Between 2000 and 2005, some 80 per cent of the CITES permits to hunt leopards in the region were granted to properties neighbouring or nearby the reserve. At the same time local cattle ranchers were applying for destruction permits to shoot ‘problem leopards’ that were believed to be taking their livestock. It was pretty much open season. Working hand in hand with the state wildlife body, and by improving communication
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with local farmers, the project has succeeded in turning things around: the whole process of destruction permits has been reviewed; sport hunting has been curbed; and there’s now only one CITES hunting permit each year for the area (out of five for the whole of KwaZulu-Natal). Leopard numbers have gone up from just five per hundred square kilometres to 13. Today as many as 50 use the reserve, and around 14 out of the 20 collared animals to date provide working signals for the researchers to learn more about their behaviour.
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e “Can you hear that?” We can. The repeated gruff bark is a nyala alarm call. A high-pitched chorus of squawking spurfowl soon follows it. We’ve only just pitched up and already our leopard is not only tantalisingly close, it’s on the move, stirring up the resident wildlife. Daryl turns the vehicle in the direction of the signal and we head up the sandy track, each of us staring hard into the bush. As we get closer, a staff vehicle comes along the other way and Daryl kindly pulls over to let it pass. As soon as he does Steve yanks my arm and Bernard points manically behind me. The crafty young leopard is crossing the road right behind us! It’s a good sighting, but the dense vegetation soon swallows up the young male cat. Daryl can’t believe it, and we sense he’s a bit miffed because he’s the only one who didn’t see him. We immediately christen the leopard Sneaky, and set off following his signal for a better view. This isn’t successful. The signal gets stronger, but the bush gets thicker and the buffalo thorns become fiercer. It’s hard to find a way through, even when hacking through it with a panga (machete). After more than an hour of it, with all the debris we’ve picked up, the 4WD looks more like a lumber truck. To boot, our hair is plaited with thorns and we’re in such a remote spot the guy who’s bringing our breakfast has radioed to say he’s been lost twice. Sneaky’s signal is frustratingly clear, but it’s definitely round two to him. The bush here is impenetrable and our leopard’s resting up in the thickest part. We agree to come back late afternoon and try again. Just after breakfast, we pick up the signal of Sneaky’s brother at a nearby waterhole. He may be close, but he is also a no-show, despite clear tracks, traces of a recent kill and evidence of hyenas having scavenged near his kill site.
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Meanwhile, we are rubbing the sleep from our eyes – it’s dark and the other guests at Mountain Lodge are still snug in their beds It’s 5.30pm and we’re back staking out Sneaky’s hideout. Our vehicle is once more strewn with thorn branches, and our crumpled clothes are covered in wood dust. The silence is eerie, until Daryl hears the call of a puffback bird. We’ve got the same strong signal as before, so our leopard is still holed up in his lair. We’re literally inches away from him, but we can’t see a thing. It’s getting cooler, which increases the odds of him making a move, so we decide to wait it out. After what seems like an age, a grazing nyala bull approaches our vehicle. Totally unfazed by us, he’s moving dangerously close to Sneaky’s doorstep. Surely our leopard will make a move now? The next thing I know there is a slight rustle followed by the grunt of a male baboon. Clearly distracted and out of sorts, I fail to see Bernard who is frantically trying to show me something on a termite mound some distance away. I panic because everyone else can clearly see Sneaky, who has emerged from his resting place in pursuit of the nyala. There he is! I can see him crouching low on the mound with his back to us. There is something about his confident, crouching posture that makes the hairs on the back of my neck prickle. The only humans here, we watch this stealthy predator stalking his prey through the still forest. He slinks along low to the ground, with graceful muscular movements and his long tail looping. We can’t believe it, but the nyala still hasn’t seen him. I’m desperate for him to turn and look at us so we can look into his eyes. e
Below: Specialist safaris allow visitors to gain more detailed knowledge of certain species that they have an interest in (in this case leopards). Of course, while you’re in the bush tracking your species of choice, you can’t help but come face to face with other memorable wildlife
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South Africa Sneaky may sport a radio collar, but finding him is still no easy task
e We’ve seen lots of leopards in our time, but this guy’s something else: he’s given us the runaround; he’s made us work for these moments, and he’s remained completely aloof despite our uninvited presence on his turf. Suddenly though, we’re reminded he is still just a big kid. In his short 18 months of life he hasn’t quite yet learned the hunting skills to outwit a mature nyala bull. The antelope has now cottoned on to his presence and is making distinct alarm calls from a safe distance. We continue to follow Sneaky as he prowls the forest floor until it’s quite dark. Eventually we’re forced to go back to the lodge. The next morning, despite endless searching, we can’t even pick up his signal, never mind catch sight of him again. We’re sad not to know the next chapter in his story, but picking up a signal from his mother’s collar buoys us. Daryl thinks she might have brought the new cubs back into the reserve. “Fancy some more bundu-bashing, guys? Ha ha ha,” he asks, careering off the road and into thick bush. “We’d better be quick though as there’s a storm coming. Ha ha ha.” Right on cue, fat raindrops start to spatter our faces. We’d look up and laugh, but yet another assault by acacia thorns forces us to duck and dive. Here we gladly go again…
Totally unfazed by us, he’s moving dangerously close to the leopard’s doorstep. Surely our cat will make a move now… Toon’s tips How long will you need? Ideally you’ll need two to three nights for a specialist leopard safari. Daryl Dell, specialist ranger at Phinda, says they rarely go more than two days without seeing one. We stayed for three nights and had three leopard encounters. Are specialist safaris for you? A specialist safari is great for people with a particular interest in wildlife or conservation, or those who have been on safari before and want to learn more, experiencing the African bush in more depth. Other tailor-made specialist safaris offered at Phinda include ‘Bush Skills’, ‘Birding’, ‘Photography’ and ‘7 Wonders in 7 Days’, an extended trip exploring
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the seven different habitats on the reserve. What else will I see? Phinda has the Big Five and is well known for its cheetah sightings. After the leopard encounters, one of the highlights of our visit was observing a spectacular cheetah chase in which a young impala fell prey. If you’re in the area between November and the end of February, you can also arrange to go turtle-watching on the shores of the Indian Ocean – Phinda is on the doorstep of the rich iSimangaliso Wetland Park. What else can I do? As a change from wildlife watching we’d recommend a guided
Above: A visit to the Nkomo primary school can put a little extra spring in your step
local community visit. We visited nearby Nkomo primary school, Mduku clinic, Mbhedula craft market and Mduku digital technology centre, all of which receive financial
and practical support from the &Beyond Foundation, a not-for-profit community empowerment organisation supported by the company’s business partners and guests.
Find out more More information about the specialist leopard-tracking safaris at Phinda Private Game Reserve can be found at www.andbeyondafrica. com/specialist_safaris.
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