Thursday, 22 May 2014

Eye to eye with a Cape Leopard

Two weeks ago Steven Bekker arrived in South Africa to join me with field work for the Black Eagle Project and to work towards his own MSc. All the way from the very flat Netherlands, I am sure he has had many new experiences, but somewhere amongst the eagles and the mountains, this was a real welcome to the special secrets of the Cederberg. In his own words, here's Stevens first blog "Eye to eye with a Cape Leopard".
-Megan
Steven at work!
On a cold Tuesday evening at Driehoek, I am sitting with Dawie, Lizette, Karli and Megan in their living room on Driehoek. We’re watching TV after a lovely night out at Oasis for their legendary ribs. Around half past nine Megan and Lizette go to bed and Dawie and I stay to watch National Geographic. In the next break I feel sleepy and tell Dawie that I am going to bed. The previous nights I went to my hut without light and I had only the light of the moon to guide me home. From their house it is easy to find my way to the corner of the garden and reach the gate, but after the gate the dark path to the campsite through dense undergrowth and trees is hard to find. But every night I managed to find my way home. Tonight Dawie offers me a flashlight. I gratefully accept the offer to have some light on my way home. I leave the house and disappear into the night. On my way to the gate only about five meters from the house I stop. Two eyes light up in the light of my flashlight. I wait and see that there is something lying on the ground approximately 15 meters from me. It gets up and turns to walk off calmly through the gate and walks part of my path through the woods. I realize that I’ve just seen something special but I don’t quite know on what level. I turn around and walk back to the house. I get in and ask Dawie: How can I tell the difference between a Caracal and a Cape Leopard because I just saw a cat. Dawie jumps up and walks with me to the place where I saw it and we follow the path that the for me unfamiliar feline has followed. At that moment I think we are not going to find it. Dawie asks what the size was. I show him the height of the animal and he replies: “That’s a leopard!”. Together we walk down the path and walk around the piece of forest to arrive at the other side on a more open space. Dawie sees on the other side of a small river approximately 50 meters away two eyes light up. 
He whispers: “it’s an owl”. But he is in doubt and we wait. The eyes move and when Dawie imitates the sound of an orphaned lamb, the “owl” starts moving. “It’s not an owl. It’s a leopard” whispers Dawie and he attracts/lures the leopard towards us with his lamb cry. After a while the leopard seats itself on a rock less than 30 meters away from us. He seems chilled and Dawie says: “I will fetch my camera”. Thrilled from the adrenalin I stay behind with the light from the flashlight with a leopard, for me, a very short distance away. When Dawie is gone I hear something in the bushes next to me. It’s nothing. The leopard starts moving again. This time away from us and disappears into the night. My lamb imitation is unfortunately not as good as Dawie’s. When Dawie returns I point him where I saw the leopard for the last time. We walk around some bushes to get another angle onto the place where I have seen him for the last time. When Dawie starts imitating the lamb again, after a while we see a pair of eyes again. “There he is!” we whisper enthusiastically. And we walk back to the first spot to get a better view. He reacts strongly on the luring sounds and comes closer. Dawie takes pictures but because of the limited available light it is very hard to get a good picture.
When he is on the edge of the river and seems to make a jump towards our side. He doesn’t, but instead he walks off on a path towards a fallen tree to cross the river. At that moment Megan joins us after searching for us in the dark when Dawie told her that I had seen my first leopard. The leopard has crossed the river and is now less than 20 meters away from us in the bushes. There we are waiting for a leopard to come out of the bushes. I realize that I have no clue what Dawie’s plans are when he appears from the bushes, but he keeps imitating the lamb. I am holding the flashlight and on the moment of truth the light is gone. It does not fade it goes dead in less than a second. Total darkness. I think we lost our advantage. Dawie whispers: “Back off, slowly.”. After a while Megan can make a little bit of light with her camera. We walk back to the house to charge the light and get other lights. We take a breath from our adventure and I think it’s over. We won’t find it again. With smaller lights we’re off to search for it again. After searching in a couple of places, Dawie climbs a rock to get a better view and with his light he searches for the two eyes. He whispers and points: “There it is again.”. He is back on the other side of the river. We go to the other side of the river to search for it and cross the river in the dark via another tree. Dawie is in no time on the other side of the river. For me it’s harder to get to the other side and Megan behind me is also relieved when she reaches the other side dry. From there we slide onto a path and climb a couple of boulders. On approximately 30 meters the leopard sits calmly on a rock. As soon as he notices us he slides off the rock and hides behind one. Megan tries to make pictures and although there is almost no light Dawie still knows where he is. 
It is hard to follow its movements. When Dawie makes calls again it creeps towards us. He whispers: “it is curious of what we are.”. Only somewhat like 20 meters away it stops and watches us.  After approximately 10 minutes it turns and walks away. He does turn its head when Dawie makes his calls but the leopard walks off gently. Dawie steps of the rock and continues onto the path to find him again on the other side. Megan and I follow. We stop on approximately 30 meters off where we’ve seen it for the last time and Dawie starts making its calls. We have no clue where the leopard is and Dawie wants to attract it. It could be hidden right behind a rock less than five meters away from us but Dawie wants to lure him towards us. Megan and I whisper that it’s perhaps not the best idea to attract him when we have no idea where it is. Dawie: “Yes, lets get back” and we walk back to the house. Back in the house we take the time to take a breath. Dawie gets his rifle to deter the leopard from the livestock with a loud warning into the night sky. Their Anatolian Sheep dog recently passed away, who would usually protect the livestock, and now there are lambs on the farm. Therefore, a loud bang was needed to send him back into the veld. Because I spotted the leopard I get the honour of shooting the rifle. This way my first shot ever!! After talking for a while I go back to my hut on the same path through the trees. I walk on this path with a different feeling. In bed I relived the overwhelming experience of what I’ve seen tonight. My first Cape Leopard. Not bad for my first week in the Cederberg Mountains!!
-Steven Karel Bekker