Captured by a leopard – Hadley Lyners
Seven months ago I took up my position as one of the environmental educators for The Cape Leopard Trust. Much like the participants in our education programme in the Cederberg, I must admit that I was excited and hopeful that I might actually get to see a leopard when I first drove into the Cederberg in September of 2013.
Let me tell you though, leopards are as elusive as their reputation suggests they are. As the Flagship and Umbrella species in this part of the world, they possess all the qualities that make them kings and queens of their domain. They rule and control over their minions with such skill and stealth that any person should consider themselves exceptionally lucky to ever see one in the wild in their lifetime.
Every week I drove in and out of the Cederberg with a fresh group of participants and every week I would scan the mountain ridges, even enlisting the help of the group by offering 10 points to the first person to spot one. On walks and hikes this endeavour has continued. Even at night after the activities were done, I would shine my lights onto the opposite hills looking for gleaming eyes. Having had no luck I began thinking my torch was not bright enough. During a camp, I start with a presentation on the animals of the Cederberg, with the highlight being the story of Titus. Titus is the territorial male leopard ruling a significant part of the Red Cederberg east of our Matjiesriver base. He is also the one who has walked through our camp! However, all we have ever seen of him has been his scat (faeces) deposited at the camp entrance. Titus has earned the title of ‘phantom cat’. Our CEO and founder of The Cape Leopard Trust, Dr Quinton Martins, is certainly the most experienced when it comes to finding leopards, but even he had been struggling for a couple of years to trap this elusive leopard.
Be that as it may, Quinton managed another 3 week trapping stint this year to try and capture and collar Titus.
On Saturday evening, 12 April 2014, just after 8pm as Nadine, our intern for this season, and I were about to meet our participants for an astronomy walk, Quinton came rushing down the road towards where we stay and said to us excitedly that his leopard trap set for Titus had been triggered. He asked if one of us wanted to accompany him to check it. As Nadine had not had much experience with presenting the group astronomy talk for the evening, I reluctantly said that she could go. I stood there in the dust watching them drive into the distance in ‘Witblits’, the legendary CLT land cruiser.
As I conducted the astronomy walk, I kept on glancing towards the Karoo gate to look for any signs of their return. I was just about to finish the evening activity with the participants, when my radio came to life and Elizabeth said: “There is a leopard in the trap. See what Quinton says and maybe you can go along when they try to collar it”. I could not say goodnight to the sleepy campers fast enough. I quickly packed my backpack. There were no less than 7 torches in my bag, and snacks that could take us through to sunrise, a 20 metre measuring tape just in case, duct tape, a first aid kit, my walky talky, toilet paper, my pocket knife and 1.6 litres of water.
By the time they came back I was all ready to go. Quinton asked if I was joining them and with great excitement I said, “YES PLEASE!” Whilst waiting on him to return from preparing the equipment, I bombarded Nadine with questions. All she could muster was that it was not quite a Cederberg hike going up to the trap, but more like “Cederberg Ironman” since they had run there all the way from where they left the vehicle, and that a leopard was indeed in the trap, lying calmly on its back sleeping like a boss.
After doing all the necessary, Quinton returned and Nadine and I joined the crew on the mission. On our way, I was yet again reminded of Quinton’s expertise when at 40km/h on a dirt road he identified the footprint of someone who walked with an in step. We walked swiftly in dark, unfamiliar terrain carrying the equipment we would need. As we walked quickly, covering quite a distance to reach the trap, I kept on turning around wondering if I would even find my way back. My heart was racing with anticipation.
We arrived at a spot next to a river, where Nadine and I were told to wait and be quiet. The experts went in at 00h15 on Sunday, 13 April 2014, I found myself as excited as never before. Suddenly the mountains around us vibrated with a huge roar.
On their return we were asked to remain quiet and wait. Quinton shared his whole nut chocolate while the minutes ticked by. After exactly ten minutes, the team went back in to check whether the leopard was sleeping. They let us know that it was now safe for us to get closer. Once we got there, everything went by in turbo-charge mode. The team worked together as clinically and as efficiently as I have ever seen.
What I saw before me was a magnificent beast. As it lay there in its drug-induced sleep I wondered for an instant whether it was going to get up and do some crazy stuff. The animal was quite a lot bigger than I had imagined. With a smooth coat adorned with elegant spots and paws as huge as a grown man’s hands, it drew me in closer.
I watched as the leopard was placed in a comfortable position and, as things were needed, I tried to be as helpful as I could be. When I was asked to get the scale, I ran as fast as I could. Wherever possible I took as many photos as I could. I was thrilled to be asked to take photographs of the paws, spot patterns, teeth, etc. An Iridium satellite GPS collar was fitted, with constant checks to see that it would not interfere with the animal’s ability to hunt. The leopard weighed in at a healthy 42kg. Once the immediate necessaries were done, we had time to have a better look at the cat and it was then confirmed that this was indeed Titus! My intense excitement jumped immediately to extreme levels. Here in our presence was the king, the one we so often spoke of with reverence, the one which inspired every presentation and never failed to capture the imagination of all our camp participants.
His overall condition was checked: teeth, paw and head size were measured, I took the opportunity to stroke this magnificent animal. Quinton’s intense joy and respect for Titus was evident as we watched him make extra sure that the collar would be as comfortable as possible for the cat.
Just as all the procedures were done, Titus started moving his head and we received the order to back off. This cat was not going to take things lying down. Almost exactly an hour later, he was quickly up and clearly had places to go to which we were not invited. We gathered all our belongings and, as we looked back, he was gone.
I have gained huge respect for an extremely efficient team and even more so for a king of his domain. Titus has captured my heart and I will forever tell his story. Thank you.