It is with great sadness that I write this tribute to the Ravenscourt female leopard, as, for me, she is and always will be synonymous with Singita Sabi Sand.
My primary motivation for wanting to become a field guide in the Sabi Sand was to gain an insight into the traditionally secretive and private lives of leopards and the Ravenscourt female gave me more of an insight into her life than I ever could have wished for.
Although once the topic of much debate, photographic evidence now shows that the Ravenscourt female was born in December 2001 to the Makwela female. In her latter years, she could be identified by the 3 notches in her right ear as well as her 2:3 spot pattern (the ratio indicates the number of spots on the left and right hand side of its snout).
My interaction with her began during my first experience at Singita in 2009, during which time she was exhibiting an unusual behavioural phenomenon of simultaneously raising a new litter of cubs and still feeding and tolerating the presence of the Xindzele male from her previous litter. This meant that it was not all unusual to see four different leopards together, lounging in a marula tree, during a visit to Singita Sabi Sand. This surprised me and only further fuelled my desire to find out as much as possible about these beautiful animals.
From the day I started the guide training course in January 2010, I was enchanted by this leopardess. As a guide I was always quick to discourage guests from anthropomorphizing and would remind them that our goal is to watch these animals in their natural environments without getting too attached to any individuals. Unfortunately, while I managed to do this for the most part, I developed a soft spot for this particular female leopard. I suppose this can be expected when one is spending close on eight hours a day either tracking or viewing a particular animal.
In this case, it was exacerbated by the fact that Singita Ebony Lodge and Singita Boulders Lodge, as well as the staff village, were situated in the middle of her territory. This meant that I had many more interactions with the Ravenscourt female than any other leopard at Singita. It seemed as if she wanted to let us know that this was still her territory as she would stroll through the staff village or lodge with her rasping territorial call carrying into the night. Often I would wake up to this call, part the curtain in my room, and see her walking along the corridor outside my window. With this kind of interaction, it is almost impossible not to become attached to an animal.
Most animals seem to shy away from human activity, but she seemed to be unperturbed and even seemed to be more comfortable around the lodges. This was epitomized by the fact that she gave birth to three litters of cubs in the immediate vicinity of the lodges. Whilst this can be partly be attributed to the dense vegetation on the banks of the Sand River being particularly suitable for leopard den sites, I feel that she may have decided that the human habitation would discourage other predators that may pose a threat to her cubs.
For the two years I spent at Singita, I felt a part of her life and she was most definitely a part of mine. The first time I saw leopards mating was when she was mating with the Kashane male in the Ximobanyane riverbed. My first ever glimpse of leopard cubs was when her three cubs cautiously crept out of a rocky crevice in the Millennium koppies to nurse from her. She was the first leopard I ever followed on a hunt. Whilst often unsuccessful, it was a fantastic experience to eventually witness her catch and feed upon a vervet monkey. She was the first leopard I ever bumped into on foot and I also spent many hours with the trackers following her spoor. If there was ever a stable sighting, I would often go out on my own, in between game drives, and sit with her and her offspring, hoping to glean something new. In fact, my last few hours at Singita were spent sitting alone with her and her two cubs as they fed on an impala on top of the Boulders koppies.
These are just a few of the many memories I have of her, memories that I’ll treasure for many years to come.
I often questioned her maternal skills given the statistics. All in all, she gave birth to six litters comprising 14 cubs, of which only four males have survived to maturity (Xmobanyane male of ’06, Xindzele male of ’07, West Street male of ’09 and the current Ravenscourt young male of ’12). In the end, however, she proved me wrong by paying the ultimate price in order to protect her near independent cub from a rogue male leopard. To me, this illustrates just how difficult life is for a female leopard and despite her 29% success rate in raising cubs, she was clearly an extremely dedicated mother.
I am so grateful for the two years I got to spend watching and following the Ravenscourt female and her offspring; she made such a difference in my life as I know she did in the lives of many rangers, trackers and guests at Singita.
© Photos copyright James Crookes
Field guide James Crookes worked at Singita Sabi Sand for a number of years and has always had a passion for these elusive cats. He says: “I chose to work in the Sabi Sand Reserve based on its reputation for amazing leopard viewing, arguably the best in the world. Not one to usually have checklists, I must admit that I did have one regarding leopards. My goal was to see a leopard kill, leopards mating and leopard cubs. These experiences have been nothing short of amazing and I will always cherish the memories I have of these times at Singita.”