Elusive animal gives experienced tracker a run for his money
By Scott Calvert
Baltimore Sun Foreign Reporter
December 24, 2006
NGALA PRIVATE GAME RESERVE, South Africa -- A leopard, it is said, never changes its spots. But veteran tracker Richard Khosa knows that's bunk in one regard. Today's perfect hiding spot - a cozy den for a mother and two big-eared cubs, say - is often tomorrow's Bushveld version of a vacant lot, abandoned with no forwarding address.
Khosa, like some khaki-clad bill collector of the bush, sets out daily on foot, unarmed, to see where the stealthy leopards have crept off to next. If all goes well, he'll find one by the afternoon game drive, payoff time, when wowed tourists fire away with digital cameras from the Land Rover.
Trackers are the backbone of South Africa's growing safari industry. Guests pay upward of $1,000 a night to stay in posh lodges and "tents" - think W Hotel with a canvas ceiling - and they want to see the Big Five: lions, elephants, rhinos, buffaloes and, most elusive, leopards.
Any of the several hundred trackers, nearly all of them black and with deep roots in this area around Kruger National Park, can make that happen. But few are better than Khosa at using paw prints, sounds, smells and other tricks handed down by his father to catch up with Panthera pardus.
For two days recently, Khosa gave a rare behind-the-scenes look at how he does it. Be warned: This is no Discovery Channel episode with weeks of action packed into a thrilling 15-minute segment. This, alas, is about the leopard that got away. But then, pursuit's half the fun.
The quest began, as always, at first light. The bush is a bit like New York City. It never sleeps. Dawn is merely a shift change, as nocturnal creatures like the leopard bed down and the birds and insects go to work, loudly. The crested francolin screeches; the white-browed robin whistles. The cicadas buzz in the mopane trees.
The bush unfolds for miles and miles in a flat carpet of thick brush, grass and low trees, with taller trees popping up here and there, often by dry riverbeds. Ngala encompasses 54 square miles and is one of several private reserves with a no-fence border along Kruger Park, itself as big as New Jersey.
The terrain teems with wildlife. Besides the Big Five, one finds giraffes, hippos, warthogs, zebras, anteaters, wildebeests, mongooses and antelopes, plus scores of bird species. Leopards, often weighing about 150 pounds as adults, are among the hardest of all to see.
Which is exactly why the 36-year-old Khosa loves trying. "If I follow a leopard and don't find it," he said in his rich baritone one evening at camp, "I'm not happy. It's a big challenge for me. That's why I keep practicing, practicing to find some leopard. But it's not easy."
Males cover huge distances, while Ngala's half-dozen females claim somewhat smaller territories of around 10 square miles. A leopard can easily traverse four miles a day, and unlike the plodding lion, it usually walks alone and as daintily as your domestic tabby. While nighttime is the leopard's (and the lion's) busy time, tracking then is too dangerous
Fresh footprints are the key. On this warm morning, beneath smudgy clouds and a robin's-egg blue sky, Khosa set out along a sandy riverbed called Tekwane Donga, near where he had found a female known to locals as Clara and her two 4-month-old cubs in a shrub two days earlier.
Half an hour in, he suddenly stopped in his tracks and eyed the sand. "A baby leopard was playing here," he said, absently tapping a stick against his leg. He aimed his pointer at a series of small, round prints pointing this way and that.
Baby leopard prints can be tricky to identify, resembling a porcupine's front paws. So Khosa looks at the hind prints. These were definitely leopard cubs', and they were not alone. Clara's tracks were there, too.
Intriguingly, her tracks indicated that she had left and not returned. The cubs' prints did not indicate that they followed. Khosa crept into the surrounding brush that leopards prefer as den sites. Maybe, he whispered, Clara went off to hunt and left the cubs. Or maybe she was still with them, despite the print evidence.
"We must look carefully," he said. When he works alone, Khosa carries nothing but a walkie-talkie. Because a reporter was along, Ngala had sent ranger Dave Waddington with a rifle just in case. "If something does happen," Waddington warned, "don't run."
Khosa laughed. His father long ago told him that if a leopard charges, hold your ground and shout. That should - should - stop the charge; he had survived hundreds of such "mock charges." With elephants, it's the other way around: Run like the wind, he says, because they might not stop no matter what you do.
For several minutes, Khosa peered intently into thick bushes and under thorn trees looking for those telltale spots. Nothing. Either the cubs had walked with their mother on the grassy river bank, leaving no prints, or Clara had retrieved them via another route. All he knew was they were not there but had likely gone to a new den partly to avoid hyenas.
Back to the riverbed he went, looking for fresh tracks. Their prints are theoretically easy to identify: Adults leave a fist-size mark that has four distinct toes and three pads at the rear of the foot.
To the untrained eye, the riverbed was a riot of random gouges and grooves. Having grown up in the bush and begun tracking at age 12, Khosa saw it differently. He could pick out myriad creatures' tracks, many barely visible even from inches away. This path seemed to have led to some animal kingdom convention: Hippo, elephant, impala, hyena and leopard had all walked this way.
Some leopard prints told a story about the animal's behavior. When a leopard walks, its hind paw usually lands where its front paw had. But when stalking prey, it gets low to the ground and takes exaggerated steps, so its hind paw lands ahead of its front paw. Trouble was, it appeared Clara had last stalked here days ago.
"Old tracks," Khosa said, meaning two or three days old. Often he just mumbled, "Mmm, no."
Old tracks betray themselves in various ways: loose grains of sand (from wind or gravity), dryness, an upright blade of grass (since that blade would be horizontal if freshly trod), a tiny spider web or another creature's print on top. Because leopards roam far, only fresh prints, from the last 12 hours or so, are worth following.
This is a tough time of year to see animals in the bush. The rains have returned, filling watering holes and fueling the growth of grass and leaves. Since the rain hardens the ground and washes away dust, tracks are harder to see. So Khosa also uses his ears, at one point tiptoeing after hearing twigs break. In this case it turned out to be nothing.
Khosa professed not to be worried about any of this. "Let's carry on until we find the fresh tracks," he said.
Until, not if.
Khosa's confidence stems from a lifetime in the bush. He was born nearby at what was then a hunting camp. His father, known only to him by his nickname, Cowboy, worked as a tracker. His family is Shangaan, an ethnic group from the Kruger area renowned for tracking skills.
Today, two of Khosa's brothers are in the business, one as a ranger at Ngala and one as a tracker at Thornybush Game Reserve. (Rangers know their way around the bush as well but spend more time with guests at camp and in the Land Rover. Khosa jokes that they are lazy "taxi drivers.")
When he was 12, his father took him out to teach the art of tracking. When he was 17, his father died, so he dropped out of high school to take his job. In 2000, he joined Conservation Corp. of Africa, a safari company that runs Ngala and lodges across Southern Africa. In South Africa alone, CC Africa employs 86 trackers.
Khosa's monthly pay of $260 plus tips and free room and board may not sound like much. But it isn't bad relative to prevailing wages in the economically depressed region. With his lack of education, the only other job he figures he could get would be as a lower-paid security guard. His salary will rise by $70 a month soon, since he has reached the second-highest tracker category: Level III.
"He's way above average," said Adrian Louw, an instructor at the Field Guides Association of Southern Africa, which accredits trackers. Three weeks ago, Khosa scored a 95 percent on his Level III test, a rare feat on the first try.
Ngala ranger Mark Shaw described Khosa this way: "If he gets onto a fresh set of leopard tracks, he goes into a different world. He almost becomes like a leopard. He doesn't like not finding that leopard."
Yet that is how the first day ended, with no leopard after seven hours of trying. By nightfall Khosa was already looking ahead to the next day.
The second day began promisingly. While headed to a new swath of territory, Khosa somehow spotted a track on the dirt road as the Land Rover rolled along at 20 mph. It was the freshest track yet, from last night. He knew that because it was not there the previous afternoon and because a genet, a catlike animal that prowls in the evenings, had stepped on the leopard's print.
Khosa's nose sniffed out the popcorn smell of leopard urine sprayed on a shrub. Some leaves still glistened. At last, it seemed, 14-year-old Clara and the kids would be seen - from a respectful distance, but seen nonetheless.
Khosa and Shaw decided to drive on, guessing she had crossed the road and moved north since the prints were at the southern end of her range. Nothing appeared, though. So Khosa headed on foot down yet another streambed. Nothing. A red-chested cuckoo seemed to mock the attempt with its call: "Ha ha ha."
The night before, a male leopard had boldly stridden through camp. But Clara was playing hard-to-see. After more than 12 hours in the bush over two days, Khosa conceded defeat, for now.
"The bush is like this," he said. "Sometimes it's easy, sometimes it's not. Always, it's changing."
The bush is indeed like that. But sometimes a search ends on a high note. A couple of days earlier, Khosa had found fresh prints and soon spied Clara and her cubs. He crept away and radioed the find. That afternoon, Bradley Deckelbaum and Ashley Walker of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., were gazing from the Land Rover as Clara and a cub ate from an impala carcass.
"The difference between that and spotting elephants from the road is phenomenal," said Deckelbaum, 32. "It's more rewarding and rare. Even though you did nothing to find it, it's a more rewarding thing. And the cubs are cute."