I have been incredibly lucky on my travels to KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. There have been so many wildlife encounters with big game like elephant, buffalo and rhino. Then there have been magical moments with the smaller things, like the afternoon I stood and watched over seventy hatchling turtles emerge from their nest and make a dash to the Indian Ocean. Whilst on a self-drive safari back in 2006 I spotted my first ever African wild dog. Being totally honest, I was not one hundred percent sure what I was looking at. I reported the sighting to the game reserve management and instantly developed a fascination into this remarkable, yet critically endangered species. This interest led me to spending time on wild dog monitoring projects, with Wildlife ACT, where I learnt a huge amount about these dogs and their complex lives.
I am always looking to learn more on my travels and when I read that Wildlife ACT were offering places on their leopard population surveys, I instantly emailed them. On three separate occasions I have had the privilege of spotting leopards. Each sighting seemed to be over in the blink of an eye and I have not even got a photograph, however all three precious moments are stored in my head. I would have been happy to visit any reserve and link up with their team, but what a bonus it was for me to find that I could join them on the Eastern Shores section of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. The park was made a UNESCO world heritage site in 1999, the first in South Africa, in recognition of its superlative natural beauty and unique global values. I had not been to this area of the park for nearly a decade. I had also had one of my three leopards sighting here.
Being nearly an hour late to our pre-arranged meeting point warrants yet another apology to the Wildlife ACT team. I always tell people to allow an extra hour when driving around KwaZulu Natal. I should listen more to my own advice! Lauren and Eduard, the team leaders, were there patiently awaiting my arrival and accepted all my apologies with smiles and warm welcomes. Volunteers, Dalia from Italy and Kamila from Poland were equally as forgiving. From the main gate we drove down the tar road, and just before reaching Cape Vidal we turned right up a sand track leading to our base. Cape Vidal is a stunning area, very popular with tourists & locals, where the wetlands meet the Indian Ocean. Here there are miles of beach, lined with vegetated sand dunes. I was welcomed again into the Wildlife ACT home by all. The house is a cosy, rustic, thatched lodge. Team leaders have the two bedrooms upstairs and volunteers share the ground floor space. Also, on the ground floor there is a bathroom and kitchen, plus outside in the fenced garden there is a braai (barbecue) for alfresco cooking.
The leopard population survey is different from the endangered species monitoring projects I had previously been on. There are no collared leopards and no telemetry tracking, as there are for wild dogs. The survey covers five reserves and spans a total of ten months from February to November. Although the leopard surveys differ very slightly from reserve to reserve the principle is the same. Wildlife ACT are contracted to Panthera and all information gathered in the field is sent direct to them, plus the iSimangaliso Wetland park management team. Panthera is the only organization in the world devoted exclusively to the conservation of the world’s wild cats. Within the Eastern Shores the team has laid out five loops of cameras, totalling forty one cameras. Each camera and location carry a unique reference number. My time with them meant I got a first-hand look at their operation and day to day tasks. Every two days camera traps are checked, and their photographs downloaded. The traps are then checked, cleaned, new batteries installed, and placed back in their original position. To ensure traps are back in full working order, there is a lights, camera, action, moment where volunteers get the trap to snap a photograph of a clipboard containing date and time information.
Back at the house all photographs from the traps are downloaded onto a central lap-top. They are then sorted into specific categories and filed into titled folders. Leopards are the number one priority species and the overall objective is to try and identify individuals and estimate a population. Identification is done by picking out unique rosette patterns in the animal’s coats. Volunteers do this by eye, carefully studying each leopard photograph. I am pleased to say that I got to see firsthand several different leopards caught on camera. Lucky volunteers get to see leopards as they go about their survey work. Lauren showed me a video she had taken of female leopard and her cub close to a camera trap that the team were about to check on. Team members often find spoor (leopard tracks) some very fresh, adjacent to traps. To be given an insight, and take part, in the valuable work being done here was a real honour.
The Eastern Shores are a real gem and spending time with the team back at the house, as well is in the field, provided a real education into the life of leopards in the area. The camera traps also revealed many other species that are logged into the survey for reference. Some of those came as a real surprise to me, species I have never seen in the flesh: Pangolin, honey badger & side striped jackal. It also gave me the opportunity to view, sometimes at very close quarters, other more common animals to the area. Our garden always had visitors. Vervet and samango monkeys were always present. After dark there were bush pigs and spotted genets.
Whilst there, another opportunity was handed to me. I got to spend time on two whale watching towers, located close to the sand dunes near Cape Vidal, standing seventy meters high above the Indian Ocean amongst the indigenous forest. There has been a whale survey running at Cape Vidal since the early 1980’s, a decade after the hunting of whales in the area ended. Chris Wilkinson oversaw the survey and in his owns words called himself “Director of all things whale”. Chris is a real character with immense enthusiasm and a genuine passion for his work. Volunteers from Wildlife ACT and a nearby ranger training base worked together from the towers logging all whales that passed by. I observed all that went on in the towers and out in the ocean. You need training to be able to carry out this work and Chris provided this to all volunteers. From the tower one observer scanned a set area of the ocean with a theodolite and relays all whales to a second volunteer. The theodolites date back to when the project commenced nearly forty years ago. A second volunteer maps all the sightings onto a chart. In layman’s terms the chart resembled a grid laid over a sliced pizza. During my morning on the towers around fifty whales were spotted and logged down. Conditions up in the towers and out at sea were windy. Chris went into detail about whale behaviour to me. He explained “When its windy the whales are more active, and the breaching is a mixture of communication, a method of cleaning and shows their playful nature”. We were treated to breaching, where the whales leap from the water, flipper waving and tail displays. We also got to see a very rare humpback dolphin plus dozens of common dolphins riding the waves below us. Birdlife included yellow billed kites, swift turns and gannets. I am already planning a return to the iSimangaliso World Heritage Site and the Eastern Shores section. Looking forward to using the knowledge gained on this stay to try and view first-hand an elusive leopard.