Falling asleep to the sound of hyenas (Crocuta crocuta) in the distance, a lions (Panthera leo) roar travelling 5km from the north or even being lucky enough to wake up to Elephants (Loxodonta africana) feeding on our doorstep. All of these great experiences can happen any day when living on Karongwe Game Reserve. We are extremely lucky here with the sightings we get to witness and just when we thought things couldn’t get any better….they did!
On Thursday 25th May at 5.30 a.m. Nico our game driver and a full truck of volunteers set off for morning drive, never knowing what new sighting we might be lucky enough to encounter. Every day is different in the African bush and that’s what’s so exciting. Everyone loves to see a Leopard (Panthera pardus) especially Nico. And, luckily for him, Simon our Reserve Manger had baited a tree with a dead impala (Aepyceros melampus) just for the purpose of finding two of our three territorial male leopards, Tsavo or Scar. With no arguments from the volunteers, Nico drove straight to the tree with the impala. We made our approach down the road slowly, volunteers silent in anticipation of what might be around the next corner, making sure not to disturb any leopard that was in the area. We look right then left then right again, eyes light up, vols forget to breathe, cameras are out, it’s Tsavo.
Everyone in the truck had that feeling you only get when you see a leopard, a deep sensation throughout their whole body and the adrenaline pumping through their veins. A huge male Leopard is now within metres and staring us right in the eyes. Nico knows instantly that this the best chance we are going to have to dart Tsavo, implant him with a tracker and have a leopard as a focus animal for research on Karongwe. Unfortunately, it was too early to radio the reserve manager so he decided to go off and finish his research and come back once he is done to see if Tsavo was still there.
Hours pass and the volunteers and Nico are itching to go back to the sighting of where they saw Tsavo last. This morning could make history for Karongwe and we could be a part of it. We drive back and he’s gone! We look and look and just when we thought all our nightmares have all come true, Elana, one of our long-term volunteers, spots Tsavo about 30m away in the thick bush…wow…what a spot! Nico radios the reserve manager who lets us know that the vet is going to take 4 hours to arrive. Until then, he asked us to sit tight with Tsavo and keep a visual. Such a hard life! The volunteers were so upset about this….NOT! We sat there for an hour then Simon came to relieve us from the scorching sun and we zoomed back to base to stock up on water and food. I have never seen people move so fast. Within 15 minutes everyone was back on the truck yelling at Nico to hurry up. We zoomed back to the sighting and Tsavo was now in the tree eating the impala. Hearing his jaws crush the impala bone was a bit eerie but incredible to witness. There was not much of the impala left so Simon brought over some other bait to tempt Tsavo to hang around longer while the vet was making his way. Tsavo left the impala and we lost visual for 30 minutes, we began to panic…have we lost our chance??? Will he be back?? We then re-lived the moment of first seeing Tsavo as he walked right behind us making his way to the nyala (Tragelaphus angasii) that was tied to a tree by Simon.
Tsavo tried and tried to undo the nyala from the tree but just could not succeeded and began to get quite frustrated and tyred from using all his energy in the hot sun. Sitting on the back of the truck in the roasting sun for the vols seemed irrelevant to what we where witnessing! He gave up and sat in the shade and then we also could move to a more shady area. We sat there for an hour or so and then the vet arrived and Tsavo still had not moved. With Tsavo 1m from the road the doctor had the perfect shot, they drove right up next to him with the gun hanging out the window…BANG! He Jumped ran 10m and laid down in the shade again…we all were thinking perfect shot but little did we know the dart had hit a bone and ricocheted right off. Take 2, they slowly approach him again knowing that they are extremely lucky he didn’t bolt, never to be seen again. This was their last chance…..slowly approaching getting closer and closer, 5m, 4m, 3m BANG! They got him and he runs behind a bush out of sight. The vet follows up with Nico to try and locate him! We hear Nico yell out HAYDEN…I froze..everyone froze-were we actually going to get out of the truck and help with getting the leopard in the car??? Nico yells guys come and help…we leap out of the car as high and as quick as an Olympic pole-vaulter. Rush around the corner and help lift him into the back seat of the vets 4x4!
We then drive to the Boma where the operation will unfold, not expecting to be able to hang around and watch it but how wrong we were. Here we met up with Sonia, Savannah, and Sandor. After helping Simon and Sandor get Tzavo out of the car, and onto the makeshift operation table, we got photos with Tsavo, helped measure him and got to watch the whole operation from a distance of 1 – 2m. It was fascination to watch-learning that the leopard’s spots go right down to the skin, touching the fur to see just how soft it is. The vet said it was the largest Leopard he has worked on and he’s been in the industry for over a decade.
How lucky we were…what an experience… a few people say it’s the best experience they are ever had and I’m one of them!
Rhiannon Craig (Bushwise Intern) and Hayden Lewis (Volunteer Intern)