In the Timbavati and Umbabat Nature Reserve, part of the Greater Kruger National Park, leopard sightings are not uncommon and, although rather elusive, secretive and solitary by nature, these striking, regal creatures are even known to sometimes wander into the lodge at Motswari – a real treat for guests!
Over the past few months, we have noticed some interesting shifts in the behaviour of our resident leopards, with certain individuals seemingly pushing the boundaries of their territories and popping up in areas where we never used to find them. The two brothers from our south and central region, Ntima and Tshukunyana, are appearing more and more in the northern region of Motswari, and this is certainly having an effect on the dominant Machaton male leopard that we were used to seeing in the area.
I haven’t had too many great leopard sightings this last cycle, but it was probably the Machaton male that I saw most frequently, so it has been quite interesting to observe his ups and downs the past few months – an obvious reaction to the pressure he is facing from younger, dominant males moving into his territory.
When I first saw him midway through September, he was looking quite thin and certainly showing signs of his age. At this point, neither of us could have predicted what the next few weeks would have in store for him. The next time he appeared, a few days later, it was in the middle of our staff village, when – at one o’clock in the afternoon – we were alerted by the squeals of a warthog that he was attempting to catch! I’m still not sure if it was the commotion caused by the staff running out to see what was happening, or if the warthog simply managed to escape his clutches, but all Machaton got for his worryingly bold attempt was a nasty gash on his hind leg from the warthog’s razor sharp tusk.
The next time we saw him, he had managed to catch a meal, but probably regretted doing so. It took us a while to figure out what the remains of the small animal he was carrying away were and we were finally only able to see what it was when he settled down. It was then that we noticed porcupine quills – deeply (and painfully) embedded in his chest and thigh. Though leopards do sometimes go after porcupines, it is usually the younger, more inexperienced hunters as the risk is generally not worth the reward. We all saw this as another sign of his increasing desperation and decline. We also noted at this time a pretty bad injury to his right eye, which could also have been caused by the porcupine, but was probably more likely from a fight with Ntima who had also been in the area a few days prior.
Another week or so went by without any further sign of him around, and there were a few of us who were fearing the worst. However, on my last morning drive before the end of my cycle, he was found at a waterhole not too far away from where I was having coffee with my guests. I was curious to see how he was looking, and after warning my guests about his recently ragged appearance and tribulations, we decided that we would swing past on our way back to the lodge to have a look. While prepared for the scraggly leopard I expected to see, we were pleasantly surprised to see him actually looking a bit better . Although still showing signs of his age, he had definitely eaten a meal a whole lot heartier than a porcupine, and his eye had even healed up quite nicely and it was clear that he had not been blinded. We enjoyed the pleasure of his presence for a short time, while he contemplatively rested in the shade of his thicket.
While he certainly faces a tough road ahead, with plenty more challenges and hardships to come as is the way of the African bush, it was a reassuring way to end my cycle’s sightings of this legendary leopard, looking more like his old, regal self.