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Newsletter 20

Manana the Hunter


At Londolozi Game Reserve, I am sitting with an 16 year old leopard who I call "Manana", the mother.
She is probably the most famous and photographed leopard in the world and is the last remaining granddaughter of the original mother leopard which Elmon and I habituated way back in the early eighties.
The rangers at Londolozi call Manana 3:4 because of her spot pattern above the whisker line. It is by this method that all the leopards at Londolozi are identified.
This particular morning, several game drive vehicles have watched her unsuccessfully hunt impala.
It is getting hot and the game drives return to the comport of the luxury lodges where the guests are accommodated.
I know that "Manana's" last meal was a monitor lizard and that was 2 days ago. Even with the heat, she may continue hunting.
I sit down in the shade15 feet from Manana. I have done this many times. I draw energy and inspiration by being in the presence of this incredible leopard.
The film crew who are working with me, move the vehicle away to a distance of 50 metres. Steel, noise and exhaust fumes clear the air, now it is just me and the leopard.
Last week I was in a tigress's den. Today I am sitting with a wild leopard in the shade. Life seems very good right now.
After a short rest, Manana gets up to continue hunting, I move on foot with her.

She hesitates, staring at me, I have never hunted with her on foot before. She moves purposefully. This is not a stroll to mark territory, this is a hunt for food.

I move 15 to 20 feet behind her right shoulder, using the same technique that I use for hunting with Tigress Julie.
I remind myself that Manama is 16 human years old or 112 years in leopard terms. Her lithe body, low to the ground, slips easily through the thick bush.
I am tall and flat footed, with a high centre of gravity. I tangle, I stumble, I snag. Her athleticism makes me feel pedestrian to say the least.
At one point, she stares at me, as if to say "you will have to do a lot better than that".
I make a mental note to contribute to the hunt if I can. Any tortoises or monitor lizards, I will catch and give them to her in exchange for the rare privilege of hunting with her.
I carry no firearm, just my camera and a hunting knife.
As a kid, I had the rare privilege of being trained by some great hunters. My father, Boyd Varty, Harry Kirkman, reputed to have hunted over 1000 lions, Winnis Mathebula the master tracker, Elmon Mhlongo, George Adamson, and the Ndorobo Maasai bow and arrow hunter, Karino Sukuli, to name a few.
Why do I get the impression that hunting with Manana, I am in the presence of greatness. This leopard has literally thousands and thousands of successful hunts under her belt. She is a living legend and I will soon discover why.
For a kilometer we hunt. She always stops close to a tree or a bush where the dappled light merges with her coat and she becomes invisible. I try my best to do the same.
We abandon the film crew and vehicle. The noise, the cameras, the exhaust fumes intrude upon what is becoming a very private thing. Mine is the hunt for knowledge, hers is the hunt for survival.
After a kilometer, she stops to rest in the shade of a small thicket. I sit in the heat outside the thicket. Manana gets up and makes space for me to move into the shade. I am moved by her concern. It is a conscious gesture on her part. Within touching distance human and leopard sit in a thicket waiting and thinking.
Does she remember when I saved her life and those of her two cubs some years ago? Is she subconsciously repaying me for that day when I treated her and her cubs for sycoptic mange? How complex is her reasoning? How long ago does she remember? Will we ever be able to talk to leopards? These are the thoughts that cross my mind as I sit close to her.
Suddenly she gets up, walks straight towards me, brushes against me, the hunt is on.
Manana uses all the tricks, she elevates on termite mounds and fallen trees. She stops and listens, her eyes scan the thickets, her ears swivel, all her senses are at maximum power. Her pre-preparation is deliberate and thorough.
I realize that she is communicating with me via her tail. If she curls it up, I must stop. If she flicks it, there is game ahead and is she flicks it fast the game is close. If she turns her head and stares, then I am doing something wrong and must rectify. Manana is talking to me with a complex array of signals. I try my best to interpret. There is no question she is the teacher and I am the pupil.
Suddenly the impala are there in front of us, moving towards us down a game path. Manana's tail whips in rapid succession, I freeze and crouch in the bush, she turns her head, her eyes drill into me, "get lower", they command, "lower still" she orders, I lie flat behind her. Her eyes are riveted on the approaching impala, her concentration is absolute.
The impala stops 5 feet in front of the crouched leopard, some six sense warns it. Three species, no more than 20 feet apart, impala, leopard and human are frozen in an moment of time.
Then I hear the approaching sound of the jet bringing the tourists to Londolozi. The jet is descending to land, it is coming in low over our heads. I curse the jet believing it will upset the hunt. Manana sees it as an advantage, she will use the sound and confusion to make her strike.
As the jet sound reaches its maximum, the impala are distracted and Manana launches straight through the bush going for the throat.
I jump to my feet, whipping the camera left and right, hoping to catch the action. Has she caught it, is she throttling it? I run north, west and back east. Then it dawns on me, I am simulating a confused impala. I could become the prey.
There is nothing, no leopard, no impala, nothing!!
I sit down in a semi state of ecstatic shock. I go through the chain of events. Did my presence on the hunt cost Manana a kill? What could, what should I have done differently?
In her younger days she would have caught the impala. I have filmed her drop onto impala and bushbuck from trees, I know what an incredible athlete she was.
Then the realization dawns on me. A magnificent wild creature, a 16 year old leopard had taken me for 3 hours of my life on an experience I will never forget.
She has entered into the spirit of the hunt. She had nothing to gain by taking me with her.
Manana communicated with body, tail and eyes. I had tried as far as possible to obey her commands at all times.
She had taught me much about leopards hunting in a short space of time.
Later she circled around, catching a young impala as the herd came to drink at the waterhole. All her experience condensed into the hunt.

The hunting experience with Manana, reinforced only too well the impact we place on hunting leopards when we follow them in jeeps. How do we lessen the impact of several tons of steel, with excited guests, cameras, radios, and spotlights following a hunting leopard? I have no answers.
What I do know is that in the field of trust and communication, whether is be with leopards, tigers, elephants, whales, dolphins, etc. we are in our infancy.
Manana had spoken to me is a language with her eyes, ears, body and tail. It is a highly complex language to say the least.
There is no doubt in my mind that as we evolve, we can in the future learn from this language and communicate with leopards.
In the meantime, Manama had given me 3 of the most inspiring and exhilarating moments of my life.
Tread lightly on the earth.



Tread lightly on the Earth

Copyright 2007 @jvbigcats  All rights reserved

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