Pugmarks, rosettes and stealth

Our trip with WildEye to Sabi Sabi provided ample opportunity to photograph predators. Sabi Sands is known for its density of predators. That said lions are usually flat cats, hyaena are scattered waiting for the call to arms and leopards do not want to be seen.

“The beauty of Africa is not man made, it is nature’s gift to humanity.”
~ Paul Oxton

A few of my own perceptions about leopards were dispelled on our trip. The first was that leopards spend most of their time in trees. They don’t! They spend a lot more time on terra firma than I imagined. Obviously they hunt mostly on the ground and there are the iconic images of them using their powerful forelegs to haul an impala, steenbok, duiker or warthog up into the fork of a tree to be able to feed away from the stealing intentions of hyaenas or lions.

“In art and dream may you proceed with abandon. In life may you proceed with balance and stealth.”~Patti Smith

Leopards walk great distances maintaining their territories. They are either marking the boundaries after a major rain storm or they are hunting or following a potential mate.

Leopards are perfectly camouflaged for their independent, stealthy way of life. When they are walking through the bush they stop often to either smell or listen. There are many giveaway signs in the bush.

One of the aspects of the trip I really enjoyed was the way the guide managed to regularly find leopards by a process of deduction, piecing all the signs in the bush together. Leopards are difficult to see. Without intelligent tracking if you see a leopard it is just happenchance. Often our guide would stop the vehicle and turn the engine off and just listen. Impala have an alarm snort, and many birds have alarm calls. The Crested francolin has a distinctive alarm call so too do starlings. Vervet monkeys, baboons and squirrels all have alarm calls. By listening to the calls in the bush you can piece together what the nature’s media is telling you. On several occasions our guide picked up where a predator was walking by listening to the bird and animal calls. It is an integral part of tracking.

Our guides also knew the territories of the various male and female leopards. In addition they could see in the sand road whether the leopard was male or female and which way it was moving and how old the track was. The reserve is demarcated into blocks by virtue of its sand road network. If the tracks entered a block and exited the block then direction of the leopard’s movement was clear. It the tracks did not exit the block then the conclusion was that the leopard was in the block. Then it became a process of deduction.

The intriguing aspect of this huge male leopard, called “white dam” after the place he was first seen as a cub, is that he was well aware of us and at times would try to hide and blend into the grass and other times just ignored us. He exuded confidence.

“ Mystery creates wonder and wonder is the basis of man’s desire to understand.” ~ Neil Armstrong.

On our third afternoon, the weather was overcast and cold. Our tracker and guide managed to pickup on the tracks of a female leopard they called “Nstumi” which is tsonga word for angel. She was a beautiful female leopard.

“Look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see, and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.” ~Stephen Hawking

We followed her that afternoon for about two hours. It is only when you spend some time watching these incredible predators walking through the bush do you realise how alert and alive they are to every sight, sound and smell around them. Some signs were intriguing and others a warning.

Ntsumi walked for extended periods through the bush then would find an elevated rocky area or anthill and stop and survey all around her. She stopped to listen and sense what was around her. We humans could learn a thing or too from this angel.

Ntsumi was inquisitive. Exploring everything in her path. It is seldom that animals walk in a straight line, it does not seem to be the way of nature.

Ntsumi could see us on the vehicle. The large 600mm lenses intrigued her. Perhaps it looked like a very large eye.

It was overcast so no sunset and was getting dark while we were watching her lounging on top of the anthill. All of a sudden she got up and walked down off the anthill. At the time it was not apparent why the sudden change. It was only about fifteen minutes later we realised a group of four lions, two males and two females had moved into the area. I don’t know whether she has seen them, heard them or smelt them but we were oblivious until we saw them. The lions could clearly smell her and investigated the anthill she had been lying on and where she had walked. We never saw Ntsumi again that evening.

One of the astounding aspects about “white dam” was the size of his territory and how he moved around it. We found him on our last game drive down in the southern most part of his territory. We found this huge male leopard lying on top of a large anthill in the early morning sun. He lay on top of the anthill for about half an hour just taking in all the sights and sounds and the sun for the first time in five days. He exuded confidence.

After a while he was on the move again. This leopard walked in gullies and in riverbeds. He was out of sight for all but those who were looking for and following him.

It was clear he knew his territory intimately.

One of the things photography is teaching me is to go beyond looking. I am learning there are many deeper levels beyond looking. The first is learning to see. Seeing is a much more intellectual process which requires looking beyond the immediacy of the subject and watching to see patterns which give insight into understanding its behaviour. Seeing is also about context and it often gives clue about upcoming behaviour. This is about understanding what you are looking at and how to anticipate. Then comes the wonder when you realise the incredible innate intelligence these animals have and their awareness and understanding about their environment. Beyond wonder comes gratitude. You realise what a privilege it is to be able to spend time to get a partial insight into the incredible lives of these animals and marvel at their intelligence and adaptation.

“We carry within us, the wonders we seek around us.” ~ Sir Thomas Browne

Photograph is teaching me to see and in so doing opening up a world of wonder which in a time of contemplation creates huge waves of gratitude.

“I believe that curiosity, wonder, and passion are defining qualities of imaginative minds and great teachers; that restlessness and discontent are vital things; that intense experience and suffering instruct us in ways that less intense emotions can never do.” ~ Kay Redfield Jamison

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.

Have fun,


6 thoughts on “Pugmarks, rosettes and stealth

  1. I have been looking forward to reading another post from you and I am not disappointed. You continue to thrill with your wonderful photography and narration. Although I am a ‘small fry’ photographer, I too find that having got beyond simply photographing ‘what is there’ – almost for the sake of recording – I have become more discerning about finding interesting or unusual aspects of my subjects. Your wisdom in this regard is very useful.

    • Thank you Anne, Life has been taken up with work and trying to help sort out a syndicated bush lodge which was burn down a year ago and is still not quite finished. There is no lack of willing or inspiration just time. I hope you are well and thriving. Best wishes Mike

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