A lone silhouette silently padded towards us. The backlight from the second vehicle cast an eerie glow around a muscular physique and sand puffed up from under powerful paws as they glided down the road. Sandriver was back. Over a year ago, this mighty specimen was dethroned as the king of the entirety of Sabi Sabi by a younger male we have come to know as Xihangalas; but times have changed. Xihanagalas has not been seen very much over the past few months and news of his absenteeism had been quick to reach the former ruler. No longer did the breeze from the east carry with it the familiar scent and territorial calls of his old adversary as it had done before. The door had been opened and the old warrior did not need a second invite to walk through.
His posture and attitude said it all. Fearless of any foe that he might meet as he moved deeper into his old territory, stopping to call and scent mark every few hundred meters, there was no doubt that he was making a play for his old domain. The lonely life of a leopard is harsh but Sandriver walked with a confidence that comes from self reliance and he looked good with it. Full belly and velveteen coat left no doubt that he was still at the top of his game, regardless of his one handicap. His blind right eye, opaque in colour, glowed like mercury as the powerful spotlight rays glinted off it; a daily reminder of the titanic battle that waged against his younger conqueror all those months ago. The metallic quality, coupled with the aura of authority oozing from him made think of the Terminator movies – a lone warrior whose indestructibility meant that, regardless of superficial injury, he was as efficient a killing machine as ever.
We followed him through the reserve, as he delved deeper into his former territory. His internal GPS seemed to suffer no consequences as at no point did he stop to evaluate his position. A leopard’s knowledge of every inch of his domain is essential: knowing the best hunting grounds and escape routes should he encounter marauding lions on his travels.
Every so often he would stop and cock his head to listen. As we strained to match the acuteness of his hearing, we heard the faint but familiar rasping sound of another leopard in the distance. Sandriver’s pace quickened and his level of territorial activity increased as he made a beeline in the direction of the challenge. He began to drool, saliva hanging from the corners of his mouth, a typical response in leopards to heightened emotions. The smell of his pheromones wafted through the night’s air. Best equated to the smell of popcorn, this aroma contains all the information another leopard needs to evaluate the individual. Routinely he stopped at bushes to wipe glands situated on the side of his face and his paws on to the leaves, leaving no doubt to others that he was back.
Occasionally he lay down to rest, but never for long. There was business to attend to and old scores to settle. The other male’s calls grew louder as he closed in on their location. Silently he drifted across the savanna but a leopard’s instinct never sleeps. As if to prove to us, and anyone else watching, that his compromised vision did not hinder him, moments later his good eye focused on something on the ground close by. In the blink of an eye, his toned legs propelled him through the air as he pounced on a petrified scrub hair. The 75kgs of feline perfection made short work of the snack and the entire hare was dispatched in a few minutes, fur, bones and all. But there was no time to savour the flavour as Sandriver continued his relentless march.
Time was against us however and forced us to return to the lodge salivating at the prospect of what we might find the nest day. We know that the calls heard by the old king were coming from the Mahlathini male and only time will tell if Sandriver’s confidence and experience will be enough to subdue to new sovereign of the north, or whether youthful self belief will be enough to keep the old campaigner at bay. For those of us who have been at Sabi Sabi for a while, to see Sandriver’s return was a real treat. It just goes to show that nothing in nature is finite and that the dynamics of territories and dominance are not set in stone. Whilst we revel in change, a large part of me wants to see Sandriver’s empire return to its former glory and I cannot wait to witness to no doubt turbulent struggles that will accompany it!