The leopards of Singita Pamushana  

Pamushana | February 2020

Here’s an overview of some of the “leopards” you’re likely to encounter on your safaris with us:

The Leopard Orchid

The epiphytic leopard orchid (Ansellia africana), a species endemic to Africa, grows in striking clusters on trees in southern Africa. They flower in the dry winter months producing an abundance of yellow or greenish yellow blooms, which can be lightly or heavily marked with brown spots – reminiscent of a leopard’s coat.

The roots anchor the plant to the tree and are specially adapted to absorb water and nutrients rather rapidly.  The defining characteristic feature of A. africana is the thin spine-like roots pointing skywards. These roots form dense accumulations around the pseudobulbs, which in turn trap aging or old leaves and decomposing organic matter upon which the plant feeds. Epiphytic means an organism that grows on the surface of a plant and acquires its moisture and nutriment from the air. Epiphytes vary from parasites in that they grow on other plants for physical structure support and may not affect the host plant negatively. Epiphytic or epiphyte comes from the Greek word epi- (meaning ‘upon’) and phyton (meaning ‘plant’). Epiphytic plants are sometimes called “air plants” because they do not root in soil.

Ansellia africana is the most common species we find here at Malilangwe and although it is not host species specific, we commonly find it in large well established mopanis and white syringa trees.

The leopard orchid is used as an aphrodisiac here in Zimbabwe. In South Africa the Zulu people use stem infusions or smoke from the roots to stop bad dreams. In Zambia, in the Mpika district, an infusion of the leaves and stems is used to treat madness. Elsewhere in the sub region it is used to ward off lightning from one’s homestead.

In the medical world, new advances have led to the discovery of active metabolites in orchids which could possibly have the following properties: anti-rheumatic, anti-inflammatory, anti-carcinogenic, anti-convulsive, diuretic, neuroprotective, relaxation, anti-aging, wound healing, hypoglycaemic, anti-tumour, anti-cancer, anti-microbial and antiviral activities. Recent studies have shown that A. africana has potent anti-acetylcholinesterase activity and can be used as an important source of various biomolecules for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

The Leopard Tortoise

One of the many things we look forward to with the onset of the rainy season, is the emergence of leopard tortoises (Stigmochelys pardalis). “Stigmochelys” is a combination of Greek words: stigma meaning “mark” or “point” and chelone meaning “tortoise”. The specific name pardalis is from the Latin word pardus meaning “leopard” and refers to the leopard-like spots on the tortoise’s shell.

They also happen to be one of the members of the “small five”, namely: ant lion, buffalo weaver, rhino beetle, elephant shrew and leopard tortoise!

We are lucky in southern Africa to have the biggest diversity in the world of tortoise species. Twelve species occur within the region of which three are endemic to the Cape. The leopard tortoise is the fourth biggest land tortoise in the world, and the largest tortoise in southern Africa. Africa is home to the world’s largest and smallest tortoises.

Unlike some species, leopard tortoises can float and even swim which makes them one of the hardiest species.

Although being mostly herbivores, they will at times eat snails, certain insects, old bones, certain animal faeces and left-over eggshells. This is because they need to provide calcium and phosphates for healthy shell growth.

I witnessed a leopard tortoise eating a millipede on one occasion. They have a cloacal bursa, anal pouch or sac, used for storing most of the water they drink or get from their food. This is to have water available at dry times of year, to moisten the soil for egg laying and as a defensive mechanism against predators. It’s for this reason that tortoises should be seen and not touched or picked up. When you pick them up, their natural defensive mechanism kicks in and they defecate and urinate. This depletes the reserve water in the cloacal sac and can cause the animal to dehydrate if they do not have access to available water.

What’s very interesting is that tortoises in desert conditions have adapted to collecting water in other ways. On overcast or misty mornings when water residue collects on a tortoise’s shell, it will elevate its back legs and move the shell left to right to get the water droplets to collect and run towards its head and direct the flow to the mouth.

Breeding season is roughly between December and May. The courtship may seem a little harsh when viewed, the male bashes into the female, almost like bashing her into submission. Males can be very vocal when they mate and a good friend of mine, on a bush walk, mistook a mating pair of tortoises for the low communication calls of a lion. He was rather embarrassed when approaching only to find some tortoises doing the nasty! The male’s plastron, underside of the shell, is concave which allows the male to fit efficiently on top of the female for mating without falling off. Although the shape of the plastron can be used effectively to sex tortoises, it’s not always the case and the best method is to look at the tail. Males tails are very much longer than the female’s tail. Females may lay as many as five clutches in a breeding season with about a month between clutches. Once the female has selected a site to lay, she digs a hole with her back legs after she has urinated and released the water from her cloacal sac to soften the soil. The nest is around 20-25 cm deep and around 15 cm wide. The eggs are around the size/shape of a Ping-Pong ball. She will lay from 5 to as many as 18 eggs, stopping at around 5 eggs to position them and cover them with a layer of soil before proceeding again. This helps to protect the next eggs being laid from cracking. Also, to prevent the eggs from cracking, each egg is coated with a semi-transparent slime which acts as a cushion for the eggs as they hit the bottom of the nest.

Incubation period can be anything from 178 to 485 days. This is dependent on conditions and temperature. If the nest is created in a cool place, most of the hatchlings will be males and if in a warmer place then most hatchlings will be female. The hatchlings develop with an egg tooth on their beak and little spur type protrusions on their legs to help with getting out of the egg. It takes around 5 to 12 day after the hatchling has breached the shell for it to absorb the yolk sac before it will start its journey to breaching the surface and moving on. They have many predators but the big ones here are mostly Nile water monitors, ground hornbills and mongooses.

Most leopard tortoise activity is in the summer months and most are seen moving around after the rains. In the winter months they seem to semi hibernate and take up residences in holes, warthog burrows and abandoned termite mounds or between root systems close to the surface under heavy covered bushes.

We also see, the Speke’s hinged tortoise and the Bell’s hinged tortoise, on the property. These three make up the total species of tortoise for Zimbabwe.

Amongst the local tribes throughout Zimbabwe it is believed that when the rains arrive, elephants turn into tortoises. The reason for this is, once the rains arrive, there is an abundance of surface water, so elephants do not have to frequent permanent sources of water, which means that elephants are seen less. At the same time, the movement of tortoises starts, and many are seen after the rain, so that is how the belief started. The Shona name for tortoise is Kamba. There are a few tribes still today that consider tortoise meat to be a delicacy.

Leopards – with a focus on the recent sightings we’ve enjoyed of a leopard in baobab trees

A leopard in a baobab tree is an extraordinary spectacle, reason being is that you are viewing two very iconic species. Baobabs are the quintessential sentinels of the bush that support an abundance of life on many levels. It’s a “tree” (largest succulent in the world) steeped in mystical and superstitious belief and when gazing upon them it’s hard not feel they are as old as the dinosaurs. Now throw a leopard into the mix and you have yourself a double whammy!

The elusive rosetted cat that lets you see its beauty, yes that’s right, it let you see it, as mostly they see us more than we see them due to a multitude of camouflage and stealth hiding abilities that they depend on for survival. Lying around on a huge baobab branch, or other trees in general, is one of these survival instincts -directly and indirectly. I will stick to baobabs for the course of this story. Please bear in mind that my explanation is based on the cat’s instinct or past lessons learnt on the cat’s side and not the cat’s thought process as such.

There are many reasons a leopard would want to climb and take refuge or rest up on a limb of a baobab.

Firstly, due to the enormity of the baobab and its limbs, it’s a more comfortable tree to lie on as the cats weight is more evenly distributed over a larger surface rather than having to drape its weight, hanging over thinner branches, like on a normal tree limb. The exterior of baobabs is smooth and soft and lacks hard gnarly bark. The baobab itself is mostly fibre as well, so for leopards their retractable claws pierce the baobab more easily and with better grip than hard wooded trees. This is just to start!

Baobab’s being tall, give the leopard an advantage to see in many directions for a long way. Leopards are often perched high enough not to worry about wind direction, so their scent is blowing well above the height of their prey species or other predators, so they remain undetected. If the prey species is not directly feeding below the baobab, the leopard is able to see which is the best route to stalk their prey from the elevated advantage. Leopards have been recorded using trees to leap onto prey, using a baobab for this would be a huge benefit, as the cat can creep down in stealth silence as the bark is soft and smooth, as I mentioned previously. Hunting from a height is very effective because cats know that most of their prey species don’t really lookup that much, also the anatomical structure of their preys’ eye placement in the skull lends itself to the leopard’s advantage as death from above is out of the prey species’ visual periphery.

Baobabs, with the way they grow, can have hidden little crevices. These crevices during the rainy season can hold water. A leopard may have learnt of certain trees where to locate water when they are far from permanent water sites. Baobabs are also known to be hollow inside the main trunk and due to growth or damage over the many years it has survived, it’s very possible that an entrance can be high up amongst the limbs. This makes for a prime location for female leopards to give birth and keep the cubs safe from other predators such as lions, hyenas and other leopards prior to becoming mobile with mom.

Leopards spend about 30% of their time in trees. In areas where hyena populations are low it’s not uncommon for leopards not to bother with hoisting their prey into trees but rather just dragging the carcass out of the sun under cover of a bush to keep it hidden from vultures. It’s also not uncommon for them to cover their prey with natural debris and soil to mask the scent.

Lastly with the baobab being so big, it’s very easy for a leopard to go undetected, so be sure to look carefully next time you pass a baobab, there just might be a leopard in it!