Dawn Kennedy

A passion for predators: Leopards at Bushmans Kloof

Dawn Kennedy takes a civilised walk with wild cats at Bushman\’s Kloof.

A person diminishes amid the Cedarberg’s landscape of sedimentary rock, sandstone and shale. Jagged stones stand like ancient tombs, paying tribute to the glacier that scraped the exposed rock, 340 million years ago.

Evidence of geological time immemorial makes one’s own personal biography a meaningless blip. Goal-setting, striving and daily drama seem absurd viewed against this backdrop. As we lose cell phone reception, the false web of online intimacy dissipates. My mind goes blank and settles on a hallucinatory appreciation of the landscape – rocks turn to people, dragons and reptiles.

Yet, despite appearing impenetrable, humans have managed to have a negative impact on this landscape. Large numbers of the cedar trees that baptised this region were felled for construction: 7200 trees were used as telephone poles between Piketberg and Calvinia. Fires added to the destruction until the removal of dead cedar trees was banned in 1967. All other exploitation ended in 1973 with the proclamation of the Cederberg Wilderness. In 2004, the Cederberg Wilderness received World Heritage Site status as part of the Cape Floral Region.

Combine this area’s natural credentials with Bushman’s Kloof, voted the best hotel in the world in 2009 by Travel + Leisure, USA, and you have a heady combination. In fact, it’s surreal. While the landscape makes you feel puny, as though it could swallow you in one gulp, the delightful staff at Bushman’s Kloof make every effort to restore your sense of importance. You matter enough to be offered a sherry on arrival, to have your linen turned down, a piece of chocolate and bedtime story on your pillow and your name known to every staff member.

Here the borderline between the human and the animal feels flimsy, as though you could step from one realm into the other. This is leopard country. Among the estimated less-than-1000 roaming Cape leopards, 35 of them live here, perfectly at home in the rocky mountain ranges.

Our weekend begins with a sunset drive. We see blesbok, gemsbok, and even an African hare with its oversize ears illuminated by the setting sun. However, the animals that we are here to track – the leopard and caracal – remain elusive. I know the odds of seeing either are minimal and too much to hope for, but I do so all the same, gluing my eyes to the rugged horizon.

Somewhere in the cracks and fissures of this rugged landscape, 35 leopards are getting ready to stalk the animals that we watch with delight and, click-whirr, capture on celluloid. Some unfortunate ones might be captured later by a leopard in another way.

Seppi, our Namibian ranger, pulls up by the purple stained lake, arranges a bar, and offers us gin and tonics, complete with ice and a slice of lemon. As the gin warms my throat, I revel in my position at the top of the food chain. Sipping slowly, details in the red landscape come alive: mossy outcrops like miniature Zen gardens cover rock surfaces and bright pink flowers, like sudden gasps of beauty, push through invisible cracks in the rock.

Back at Bushman’s Lodge, we enjoy an educational presentation before dinner. I learn that the Cape leopards have massive territories that are 10 times larger than other African leopards. For example, a Kruger male leopard has a range of 25–50km², whereas a Cape leopard has a range of 200–1000km². Usually, Cape leopards are fairly small, almost half the size of their Kruger counterparts. These diminutive predators pose no threats to humans, but our small leopard faces big problems.

Humans have always had a trigger-happy response to animals in South Africa. It is hard to believe that when Europeans first arrived in the Cape there was an abundance of large mammals, including lions, hyenas, and black rhinos and elephants. All have vanished, except the wily leopard, who has survived in the rugged fynbos and Karoo mountains.

Written accounts of leopards in the Cape date back to the early 1600s. Then they were known as tijger, tiger or tiere. They were considered vermin, and there were records of them being shot in Bishopscourt, Newlands, Rondebosch and Hout Bay. Records suggest that the leopard population around Cape Town and the peninsula was already decimated by the mid-1800s.

South Africa’s leopard expert, Dr Quinton Martins, known affectionately as tierman (leopard man) describes leopards as “beautiful, enigmatic creatures that epitomise wilderness”. But apart from the soulful response that they evoke, he explains that leopards are ecologically important. They are the top predator in the Cape, and by protecting them we simultaneously protect all the other animals that inhabit their ecosystem. Ecosystems are delicate and dynamic, with each part of the food chain playing an important role. Taking out a predator can create an even greater problem. Quinton explains: “Apex predators such as the leopard play a vital role in ensuring functioning ecosystems. As an apex predator, flagship species and umbrella species, leopards do very well for broader environmental conservation. One would also not draw the public’s attention as much if one were to start the Cape Angulate Tortoise Trust.”

The Cape Leopard Trust, founded by Quinton in 2004, is working to help farmers understand that shooting leopards is not the solution. For one reason, when one leopard is killed, another swiftly moves in to take over its territory. Quinton stresses protecting the livestock rather than killing the predator. For example, farmers can keep livestock in an adequately fenced leopard-proof kraal at night and use a combination of Anatolian sheepdogs and herders. Only two leopards have been killed since the trust was formed.

Back at Bushman’s Kloof, there is great excitement on Saturday morning. Seppi has spotted signs of a leopard kill, and before the sun has had a chance to chase away the evening chill, we’re off on another drive, nestled within khaki fleece-lined ponchos, our breath forming ghosts in the air.

Motion-sensor cameras enable us to sight shy animals such as aardvark, aardwolf, African wildcat, cape fox, caracal, and genet. The cameras at Bushman’s Kloof have captured breathtaking images of leopards walking insouciantly in front of cameras.

This morning we go to check activity at the site of a springbok carcass. Along the way, Seppi reads the landscape’s ancient hieroglyphics that I can’t interpret. Pointing at the dust, he says: “Here is a leopard paw print – you see, it’s a cat and has no nail imprints. Look here – you can see how it dragged the animal between its legs. See there is a spot of blood.”

Suddenly a scene of struggle and carnage, life sacrificing itself to life, comes into clear focus. While we were eating a five-star meal, accompanied by wine, with mint and chocolate amuse bouche, leopards have been stalking and killing their prey, probably dragging it to a thick bush or rock crevice for safekeeping. The time prophesied in the bible when The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid (Isa: 11:6) has not yet come.

Today technology has let us down. A flat battery means that there are no images on the camera.

The next morning, we visit a bushman’s cave and examine recent paintings that are maybe 1500 years old. Images of tiny men with large arrows aimed at elephant. There are no leopards – perhaps they were as elusive then as now – but there is what appears to be a caracal.

While leopards are the top cats, predators such as caracals are also significant. Caracals, like all predator cats, are difficult to track. Born in the Champagne region of France, Marine Drouilly has come to the Western Cape to study how leopards influence caracal populations. While studies of both leopards and caracals are scant, so far, no one has studied even the basic (spatial) ecology of caracals.

Unlike leopards, caracals live in closae proximity to humans. They are opportunistic feeders who, in the absence of any other food, will even eat potatoes. Marine has received several calls from people that have spotted a caracal in their garden.

While Marine regularly sees photos of caracals on cameras, until 17 June 2012 she had never seen one in the flesh. On that day, she wrote with great excitement on her blog: “I spotted my first caracal in the wild in the Cederberg mountains. The cat was walking in a vlei, its big black ears pricked up, vigilant to the surrounding noises. It was so beautiful! I wish I could have taken a picture before it disappeared in the reed bed.”

There is one collared caracal in Bushman’s Kloof, called Easter, who has a cub called Rooibos. At R40 000, collars are not cheap, but they yield invaluable information. Marine’s passion for the caracals is palpable as she scans the horizon, intently moving a piece of equipment like a television aerial, back and forth. This detects signals from Easter’s collar. Suddenly, she picks up heartbeat-like beeps. “She’s close, very close. She must be in those bushes,” says Marine, pointing to some shrubs 20m away. We inch slowly forward. For a moment, the beeps remain constant, but then they suddenly stop. “She must have moved west,” says Marine, while Seppi, an eager accomplice in our tracking expedition, accelerates to the right. However, despite running around in circles for half an hour, we don’t pick up the signal again.

021 was hosted at Bushman’s Kloof Wilderness Reserve and Wellness Retreat, Cederberg courtesy of Red Carnation.

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