Mashatu: a place of leopards

In November last year, friends together with my wife Helen and I spent a week at Rock Camp, which is a syndicated camp in Mashatu Nature Reserve in south eastern Botswana. It is not a commercial camp and has retained its bush camp ethos over the years, which we love.

There are wonderful places to see leopards in southern Africa but to my knowledge there are only two places where you are almost guaranteed to see leopards when you visit. The one is the Sabi Sands Reserve and the other is Mashatu Nature Reserve in south east Botswana.

I have included three interesting sightings and interactions which we were privileged to see.

“Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance” ~The Lion King

The first was this young adult female Leopard. We caught sight of her in a croton glade lying quietly on a fallen tree trunk. She was just listening to all the sounds around her.

At one point she looked left out into the open area next to the glade and she caught sight of a Steenbok.

Immediately she got up and started to walk into the open area away from the Majale river. She was careful to use the earth mounds and vegetation to hide her approach.

The leopardess walked around the side of a fallen tree and there, in the top right hand upper third of the image, next to a Stink Shepherd’s bush, lay the Steenbok in the shade. The Steenbok saw the leopardess and moved further along the river bank.

Very quickly the Steenbok caught sight of the leopardess, thanks in part to an alarm call from a Natal spurfowl. I was fascinated to watch the predator and prey interact. The Steenbok just watched her knowing it had enough flight distance between the two of them. The leopardess acted as if it was her intention all along to go and sit in the shade of Stink Shepherd tree and nonchalantly gazed at the exposed Steenbok.

The Steenbok actually walked closer to have a good look at the leopardess. We assumed the Steenbok was trying to get a better look to see whether the leopardess was injured or not. The leopardess never looked directly at the Steenbok while the latter was directly looking at her. The sighting ended with the Steenbok circling the area and then running off unscathed.

“Whatever you do, do with deep alertness, then even small things become sacred.” ~ Rajneesh

The next morning we found a young male leopard looking very relaxed in one of the forks in a large Mashatu tree. He had a good lookout. It was shady and cool but only offered him a view away from the Majale river.

“If you are intelligent, if you are alert, the ordinary becomes the extraordinary.” ~ Osho

He was completely unfazed by our game vehicle which was parked about 30 metres away.

This male leopard was watching a herd of impala in the distance which were slowly making their way toward him.

“I am not my thoughts, feelings, circumstances or changing events in my life. I am the awareness, the alertness, the changelessness which remains present behind it.” ~ Marcus Thomas

The one thing this male leopard did not take into account was that he could not see anything approaching the Mashatu tree from the river side. Consequently he did not see a troop of baboons approaching the Mashatu tree. The troop was quiet until it got to within about 20 metres from the Mashatu tree and then the baboons must have smelt the leopard because they started to bark in a particular way. The large male baboons quickly ran in from the rear of the troop. The barking baboons gave this young male leopard a fright. His whole demeanor changed. He was staring out of the tree but not seeing only focusing on what he could hear. He was assessing the threat.

“He heard them barking but was instinctively still so he could listen to assess where they where, how many there were and what their intentions were. Listening means so much more than hearing.” ~ Mike Haworth

The baboons, far from being afraid of the leopard, must have sensed the predator was a youngster. They quickly climbed up the tree far enough away not to be caught by the leopard. The large male baboons were followed up the tree by brazen youngsters. The safety in numbers added to the troop’s bravery.

There was no way the leopard could escape from the Mashatu tree because it was surrounded by baboons. A large male baboon stayed on the ground and kept a close eye on the leopard’s movements.

The young male leopard climbed higher into the Mashatu tree onto a wide bough which could give him purchase if he was attacked. Needless to say the baboons shouted and barked at him and even threw branches at him but his deep throated growl even unnerved us in the game vehicle watching the whole scene. Eventually having given the leopard enough of a hard time they realised he had an advantage and they wandered off. The leopard did not come down from the Mashatu tree but moved to an unphotographable position, so we left him in peace.

On our second last afternoon game drive we came across a female leopard lying in the shade on the bank of the Majale river.

She was minding her own business just lying quietly listening.

“Life is a dance. Mindfulness is witnessing that dance.” ~ Amit Ray

A small family herd of elephants walking on the riverbed passed below the leopardess. The elephants wandered about 50 metres further down to a bend in the river where they had previously dug into the sand for water. In November, the Majale river was dry but the water table remained high so the elephants dug down in the sand to get the filtered water.

Having slated their thirst they even used some of the water to cool themselves. The elephants returned in the direction they had come but took a path up the bank where the leopard was lying. I was surprised that the female elephant did not see the leopard until she was about ten metres away. The elephant got a fright, trumpeted and kicked sand at the leopardess who quickly got out of the way.

There are numerous leopards along the Majale river which courses through the centre of the Mashatu Nature Reserve. The banks of Majale river are lined with Mashatu trees (Nyala Berries) , Apple-Leafs and Leadwoods. There are also many croton groves all of which provide the leopard population with plenty of cover, shade and areas in which to to hunt.

“Our senses are the doorway to the present moment and the more we expand our awareness in every moment, the less we’re lost in our thoughts, and the more we’re fully living and getting the most out of our lives.” ~ Todd Perelmuter

The sightings of leopard are usually very good because of most of them have been habituated to the game vehicles. The adult male leopards tend to avoid the game vehicles and are not nearly as relaxed around the vehicles as the females. This possibly has to do with young male leopards being forced away from the Majale river by the older more dominant males. The young males consequently do not get the degree of habituation as the females.

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

Have fun, Mike

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