Steps to spotting a leopard

Elusive animal gives experienced tracker a run for his money

December 24, 2006|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN FOREIGN REPORTER

NGALA PRIVATE GAME RESERVE, South Africa -- A leopard, it is said, never changes its spots. But veteran tracker Richard Khosa knows that's bunk in one regard. Today's perfect hiding spot - a cozy den for a mother and two big-eared cubs, say - is often tomorrow's Bushveld version of a vacant lot, abandoned with no forwarding address.

Khosa, like some khaki-clad bill collector of the bush, sets out daily on foot, unarmed, to see where the stealthy leopards have crept off to next. If all goes well, he'll find one by the afternoon game drive, payoff time, when wowed tourists fire away with digital cameras from the Land Rover.

Trackers are the backbone of South Africa's growing safari industry. Guests pay upward of $1,000 a night to stay in posh lodges and "tents" - think W Hotel with a canvas ceiling - and they want to see the Big Five: lions, elephants, rhinos, buffaloes and, most elusive, leopards.

Any of the several hundred trackers, nearly all of them black and with deep roots in this area around Kruger National Park, can make that happen. But few are better than Khosa at using paw prints, sounds, smells and other tricks handed down by his father to catch up with Panthera pardus.

For two days recently, Khosa gave a rare behind-the-scenes look at how he does it. Be warned: This is no Discovery Channel episode with weeks of action packed into a thrilling 15-minute segment. This, alas, is about the leopard that got away. But then, pursuit's half the fun.

The quest began, as always, at first light. The bush is a bit like New York City. It never sleeps. Dawn is merely a shift change, as nocturnal creatures like the leopard bed down and the birds and insects go to work, loudly. The crested francolin screeches; the white-browed robin whistles. The cicadas buzz in the mopane trees.

The bush unfolds for miles and miles in a flat carpet of thick brush, grass and low trees, with taller trees popping up here and there, often by dry riverbeds. Ngala encompasses 54 square miles and is one of several private reserves with a no-fence border along Kruger Park, itself as big as New Jersey.

The terrain teems with wildlife. Besides the Big Five, one finds giraffes, hippos, warthogs, zebras, anteaters, wildebeests, mongooses and antelopes, plus scores of bird species. Leopards, often weighing about 150 pounds as adults, are among the hardest of all to see.

Which is exactly why the 36-year-old Khosa loves trying. "If I follow a leopard and don't find it," he said in his rich baritone one evening at camp, "I'm not happy. It's a big challenge for me. That's why I keep practicing, practicing to find some leopard. But it's not easy."

Males cover huge distances, while Ngala's half-dozen females claim somewhat smaller territories of around 10 square miles. A leopard can easily traverse four miles a day, and unlike the plodding lion, it usually walks alone and as daintily as your domestic tabby. While nighttime is the leopard's (and the lion's) busy time, tracking then is too dangerous

Fresh footprints are the key. On this warm morning, beneath smudgy clouds and a robin's-egg blue sky, Khosa set out along a sandy riverbed called Tekwane Donga, near where he had found a female known to locals as Clara and her two 4-month-old cubs in a shrub two days earlier.

Half an hour in, he suddenly stopped in his tracks and eyed the sand. "A baby leopard was playing here," he said, absently tapping a stick against his leg. He aimed his pointer at a series of small, round prints pointing this way and that.

Baby leopard prints can be tricky to identify, resembling a porcupine's front paws. So Khosa looks at the hind prints. These were definitely leopard cubs', and they were not alone. Clara's tracks were there, too.

Intriguingly, her tracks indicated that she had left and not returned. The cubs' prints did not indicate that they followed. Khosa crept into the surrounding brush that leopards prefer as den sites. Maybe, he whispered, Clara went off to hunt and left the cubs. Or maybe she was still with them, despite the print evidence.

"We must look carefully," he said. When he works alone, Khosa carries nothing but a walkie-talkie. Because a reporter was along, Ngala had sent ranger Dave Waddington with a rifle just in case. "If something does happen," Waddington warned, "don't run."

Khosa laughed. His father long ago told him that if a leopard charges, hold your ground and shout. That should - should - stop the charge; he had survived hundreds of such "mock charges." With elephants, it's the other way around: Run like the wind, he says, because they might not stop no matter what you do.

For several minutes, Khosa peered intently into thick bushes and under thorn trees looking for those telltale spots. Nothing. Either the cubs had walked with their mother on the grassy river bank, leaving no prints, or Clara had retrieved them via another route. All he knew was they were not there but had likely gone to a new den partly to avoid hyenas.

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