A leopard seen at night seemed to be limping and on closer inspection had severely atrophied muscles on it’s hindquarters. It seemed to be moving, but with some degree of difficulty. We sent photographs to a vet who suspected it was caused by trauma, such as being hit by a car, that had damaged it’s nerves serving the hindquarters, so the muscles were simply wasting away. We found him by the tar road, so this certainly seems like a possibility. We put bait out to try to see if he could be helped by any veterinary attention, but sadly we did not see him again, and a few days later his distinctive tracks stopped appearing. While the area he was in is little used by lions, it is heavily used by Spotted Hyeanas, and we suspect that he may have been too slow to escape an encounter with them.
The fences between Mapungubwe National Park (at the point on the map where Zimbabwe, South Africa and Botswana meet) and De Beers Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve are due to be removed soon, which will hopefully help solve the problem, as animals often get trapped between the two fences, and panic when they see cars coming and run blindly, making them susceptible to being hit. With the removal of the fences will also come the arrival of speed bumps to slow the traffic, so we sincerely hope that this threat to our wildlife will be removed. It will not come a moment too soon!
Our call-ups on Mapungubwe National Park took place over two very cold nights and, while we were chilled to the bone, they were a great success. We had good responses from Spotted Hyaenas at all sites, and on the second night we were lucky enough to see Brown Hyaena, Porcupine, 3 Bat-Eared foxes and a number of Black-backed Jackals. The big excitement for the evening, however, was seeing first one, then two leopards coming out of the bush and carry out an elaborate courtship ritual in front of us in the moonlight. The male was large and the female was a small one, perhaps breeding for the first time. As if this were not enough, we were treated to another female leopard appearing later on in the night as well, this time a much larger one than the first.
Overall it seems the Hyaena population may be picking up, possibly from migration from over the river in Botswana where the density is very high indeed. When this area was all farmland on the South African side, Spotted Hyaenas were visciously persectued as stock thieves, but they are making a slow but steady comeback.
Our work on Mapungubwe National Park is well underway and we are already seeing great differences in predator densities when compared with Venetia. Mapungubwe has a lot of leopards! We expected this from camera-trapping work we carried out a few years ago, but the difference between the two reserves is startling. Mapungubwe is wonderful leopard habitat, as it stretches along the Limpopo River which provides dense cover, and has many rocky outcrops in the area behind.
We have also picked up a number of lions in the area; up to 10 individuals on a section of the park that is only 10000ha. At least one group is thought to have crossed the river from Mashatu Game Reserve in Botswana and been caught on this side when the rains caused the normally dry Limpopo to flow. As we head into the dry winter, and the sand resurfaces in the Limpopo, it is possible these lions will head back across the border. The fantastic thing is that with the fences coming down, these beautiful animals now have the freedom to move like this in a way that has been almost impossible for much of the last century.