Tracker’s leopard encounter

Sabi Sand | July 2018

This is a story narrated by Peter Ubisi, one of our experienced trackers here at Singita Sabi Sand. Let me say that tracking requires a lot of bravery and it takes guts to master. One needs a sharp eye and acute hearing to walk into the middle of nowhere to find the “nobodies” that live where you do not belong as a human.

The skill of finding a footprint of an animal on a sandy patch or gravel patch and be able to tell which animal left the print and work out how old the print is and still launch an investigation, does qualify as madness… but only in the “real world.”

On this one afternoon game drive, Peter got a report from his guide that there was a leopard that had crossed the Sand River towards the area they were working. As per usual, he took a hand-held radio with him, left the vehicle and said his “goodbyes” and “see you laters” and smiled eagerly as he made his way into the bush in the direction of where he thought the leopard might come out. One might ask “why not
use a vehicle to try locate the animal, because surely it would be dangerous to encounter a leopard on foot?”

The answer is, yes he did encounter the leopard, and it was quite awkward, very unsettling indeed. When Peter left the vehicle, he took a game path which would allow for an easier walk with fewer obstacles. About ten minutes later, he heard footfalls, the sound of animals running towards him on the game path that he thought was going to be easy to walk on. But it sounded like this time the owners or frequent users of the path were home – he could not see them yet but they were coming his way at what sounded like full speed and that was not good news! He did not know what was going to come around the corner any second now. When the animals did show up, his immediate thinking was “this is it, my map ends here and now.”

The female leopard took a corner at an alarming speed with a rather oversized male baboon close on the leopard’s heels! These two are known to be sworn enemies and Peter Ubisi was in “no man’s land” and it became a desperate situation more for man than animal. The baboon was winning, the leopard was losing, and they were hurtling towards Peter who had no plan but to make a call on his radio. For some reason or other, the radio communication failed at that moment, and Peter had to turn to his experience and instinct, trusting that what he had always practiced in tight situations would preserve him once again: “stand your ground, make yourself look big and aggressive.” And as fast as the animals appeared, so they disappeared! What was left was a loud sound within his chest, banging loudly against his ribs, and he believes he smiled, thinking “what an experience!”

Later on, when Peter was safely back on the vehicle, it was discovered that the leopard had a kill and the baboons had stolen some of the meat. Baboons can be very intimidating creatures, and leopards (especially female leopards) are very wary of them indeed.

Editor’s note: It should be mentioned here that there was nothing reckless about what Peter did. On a daily basis, our trackers spend time on foot, actively following up on predators. They are experienced and well trained, and know what to do in the event of a close encounter. The leopard was not charging the tracker, it was being chased by the baboon. Even if the leopard had been aggressively charging Peter, the correct thing for him to do would have been to stand his ground. Most of our trackers and guides feel safer on foot in the African wild than they would feel in a strange city.