My first leopard sighting at Kwandwe
By Nick Mannion

I have been a ranger at Kwandwe Private Game Reserve a little over a year, and after countless sightings of big apex predators, I always look back fondly on my first leopard sighting. During my first 3 weeks here, I was desperate to see a leopard, yet was still no closer to finding one until the long-awaited day arrived.

I woke up none the wiser about what was about to unfold that day for Vusi, my guests and me. We came across tracks of a female leopard from the evening before that were heading along the banks of the Great Fish River. The tracks headed down towards the river itself and were swallowed up by the dense Acacia thickets that ran along it and we lost the tracks.

We decided to drive along the river for the rest of the morning, however we found no further sign of her anywhere. As the temperature rose, we knew she would most likely have settled in the shade on the cool banks of the river. Despite luck not being on our side we weren’t defeated, and as we headed back to the lodge, hopeful that the afternoon game drive would give up more secrets than morning had.

That afternoon we decided to look for lions first and then later towards the evening to head to the river in search of that same leopard. We had an amazing experience watching one of the lion prides of Kwandwe, and then as the wind started to get stronger Vusi and I decided to set up a drinks stop not too far away from where we had lost the leopard tracks that morning. We stopped in a sheltered area along the river, and as Vusi and I started to set up the drinks table, vervet monkeys started alarming calling a little further down the river banks … there was a predator here somewhere and the monkeys weren’t happy about it! We hurried back to vehicle and then drove along the road to align ourselves with where the monkeys were alarm calling from. They were now looking right at a spot not terribly far from where we had recently stopped for drinks.

Was it the same female leopard we had tracked in the morning? Or was it something else, a lion perhaps? We moved as quickly as we could to get to source of the monkey’s consternation and there she was! Framed by the dense vegetation of the riverbank in a small clearing, the fulfilment of our mission and a glorious sight to behold.

She glanced back, looking right at us. I turned to my guests and there was dead silence … just open mouths and a few eyes filling up with tears of joy. Vusi and I hugged each other, we were ecstatic! I remember hardly saying anything while we watched her, I had no words, it was just incredible to spend some time with this gorgeous cat as she walked along the banks of the river!

Her belly was full, and this explained why she had spent so much time in the area sleeping off her most recent meal. We followed her as she weaved through the acacia thickets and eventually moved to the top of the riverbank scent marking on a few bushes as she walked, then back down to the river towards a very old buffalo carcass we had previously passed.

She approached the old and dried up carcass and smelt it and then tentatively tried to take a bite. We all burst out laughing at the look on her face as she turned away in absolute disgust. Still chuckling at her, we watched as she sat just a few meters away licking her paws and cleaning her face to rid herself of the buffalo smell.

It was at that moment when it really hit me. After the frustration of not finding her in the morning to the complete adrenaline rush when we did discover her and how that had happened, this moment was different. This was the most elusive cat, one that sometimes offered no more than a fleeting glimpse, and here we were sat just a few yards from her as completely at ease in her presence as she was in ours. It was so much more than just seeing a leopard; it was watching this secretive apex predator going about her natural behaviour and for a short period see into her life. To watch this small part of her life-story unfold, was truly special.

After cleaning herself up and with a big yawn she continued on her way and we stayed with her until eventually, she melted away into the thickets along the river.

That was over a year ago now and countless leopard sightings have transpired since. I have seen this same female so many times since then, often in the exact same area, and have continued to watch her story develop but that moment still stays with me.

Because for me, that is where the story started.