It was 1 May and somewhere in space; a satellite was receiving a message and relaying it back to earth. A leopard cage alarm had been activated and Dr Quinton Martins, from The Cape Leopards Trust, prepared to respond. One of his cages had an occupant!
It was early evening but before Quinton could alert the leopard team, he had to make sure that the visitor, now trapped in cage no 4, way up in the Cederberg Mountains was indeed the elusive master of stealth. Experience had taught that other animals, like baboons or badgers, often trigger alarms, so a long drive followed by 1 hour on foot was necessary to identify the cage occupant.
Quinton was actually after a 14 year old female leopard named Lizzy that was the resident female in this area of the Cederberg. She had been collared with a radio transmitter before, but about two years ago while tracking her signal the collar was discovered lying in the veld. Initial concern for her status was soon allayed when a motion triggered camera revealed she was not only alive and well, but also sporting a beautiful 9 month old cub.
When Quinton's stealthy approach of the cage was met with a spine chilling “get out of my space” growl, the show was on. He could make out it was a female but was as yet unable to identify her as being the missing Lizzy.
The series of events that followed had a sense of urgency about them, as Quinton's main concern was to cause the least amount of stress to the cat. Half an hour later, I found myself, along with my friend the overseeing vet from Ceres, Dr Marc Walton, speeding up Gydo Pass into the Koue Bokkeveld and then onto the Cederberg.
At Maatjiesrivier Nature Reserve, we met up with Quinton and some rangers from the reserve. Also joining was Marine, a French lady from Champagne, doing her master’s degree on the Caracal (better known as a lynx or Rooikat). After a short briefing under the cold Cederberg night sky, we were bouncing up the 4x4 route and in spite of a white knuckled grip the back seat at times reminded of rugby lose maul. I did my cursing in Afrikaans and Marine replied in French!
Leaving the vehicles behind at the track end, we did a quick stock take of equipment and minute’s later 8 headlamps were starting an hour’s hike down the valley. In spite of an early winter bite in the air, sweaters were soon coming off overheating bodies, but there was no let up in the pace set by Quinton.
The animal was under stress and we had to get the job done ASAP. About 300 meters from the cage we were ordered to go into stealth mode and the heavy breathing became more apparent. Just 50 meters from the cage Quinton’s raised hand called a halt and the puffing platoon came to a stop with a sigh of relief. We set up the mobile leopard clinic with minimal noise and out of the leopards’ sight.
A few minutes later the theatre was ready and Marc and Quinton, armed with the tranquillizing gun, set off to sedate the very unhappy customer. Words cannot describe the feeling when such a beautiful beast vocally expresses her severe dislike of the two humans invading her space.
The growl that pierced the half moon night awakens an ancient part in my genetic memory, of a time when my forefathers, came face to face with death, clutching perhaps only a spear, with no fence separating death and themselves. It dawned on me with great sadness, that the roar had in it a plea. A plea that reverberated and echoed through the mountains for all to hear.
The plea of let me live, let my cubs live! Let my species live!! We are also part of this earth but we are few and we are surviving with great difficulty.
Darting was done very swiftly and after a few minutes wait, Marc went back to “top up” a very drowsy, but still conscious cat. Ten minutes later Quinton appeared in the path, carrying the leopard like a baby in his arms, illuminated only by the dim light of his headlamp.
He placed, what he confirmed to be Lizzy, on two of our discarded wind breakers. We had about 30 minutes to finish the job ahead.
The team efficiently went about taking blood samples, ear tissue for DNA testing and records. We removed and bottled all ticks for analysis. Measurements were taken of all her features; teeth and claws were inspected and found to be in good shape. Because she showed signs of dehydration, Marc put her on a drip, which I had been warming under my shirt against my skin for the last 15 minutes.
All this was done in softly spoken undertones, as Quinton pointed out that loud sounds were causing Elizabeth’s ears to twitch, indicating a slight awareness. He also suspected that her cub, by now 11 months old, might still be around and we should keep noise to a minimum. With time running out on us, the vet applied pressure to the shock drip solution and soon the dehydrated lady was topped with life enhancing fluid!
During this period of quick but expert handling of Lizzy, Quinton had fitted a new radio transmitter and we weighed her, not something females of any species wish witnessed. It was just less than 20 kg but we will keep the details secret!
A shot of anti-biotic and vitamins later, the clinic was hastily packed up and cleared. We all stood at some distance as we watched Marc inject the antidote. Moving away all the time we kept looking back and under the beam of a strong light we watched and waited…30 sec, 1 min, 1min 10 sec….she lifted her head.
Getting physical with a leopard is referred to as getting “1000 stitches a second” so we kept moving off, now at least 50 meters away, picking up the pace. I was bringing up the rear with Quinton and Marc and the last I saw of Lizzy she was sluggishly coming to her feet. We turned our lamps off for a while and under a half moon moved still further away from the beautiful leopard.
I was left with an incredible feeling of satisfaction and deep hope that our efforts to keep track of her in future will help us understand her species better. Hoping that we humans can find a way off sharing this planet with all who have a right to it. Today I stand in great admiration of organizations like The Cape Leopard Trust and all those who spent their free time and energy on projects like these.
Perhaps we can one day tell our kids “there are leopards in the mountains” instead of making bumper stickers that say, “there once use to be leopards in the mountains”. To the “May-Day team of the Cederberg”, we salute you all!
It was 03h15 when a tired, excited but much more relaxed group boarded for the trip back to base. Arriving home at 05h00 I was met with the usual welcoming party from my dogs, but it was soon became apparent that all was not as it should be.
The two bigger dogs came close up but upon getting the scent from my wind breaker, put an immediate distance between us and with tail between the legs set about waking up the whole neighbourhood with frantic barking mixed with yelping. The little house dog simply froze. None of the usual jumping and barking, just tail between stiff legs and ears up, like a statue.
A day later now and they are still not speaking to me!