When I go through this endless array of photos, there are different folders where a selected group of celebrities is categorised under. By celebrities I mean the infamous big 5 (a term I will eventually come to hate) such as rhinos, leopards, elephants, lions and buffalo, and other popular faces like giraffes, hyenas and some shier subjects like badgers, genets and so son.
No doubt leopards are the equivalent of Hollywood stars, they’re the only ones that get a digital AND printed diary – my first taste of the human obsession that can follow the spotted cats. Leopards are also one step above everyone else as the get identified. Every different animal is “named” following the phonetic alphabet (I feel like a pilot every time I ID them).
“How can you recognise leopards?” You may ask.
Easy: comparing spots, or more accurately their “rosettes”. No two are alike, because of camera traps we normally focus on the sides of the animal to be able to tell who’s who.
Identifying them off camera traps isn’t always easy. Like super stars pestered by paparazzis, sometimes the photo angle is terrible or the speed wasn’t fast enough and you get stuck with a blurry photo that is pretty much worthless. Practice does make perfect and – if I may add – crazy. I close my eyes and all I see are spots dancing around.
Three years ago Golf – big male leopard – was fitted with a telemetry collar so that Jan could finish research regarding male’s distribution and dispersal. The collar no longer works and for about a year they have been waiting for Golf to be photographed again or get caught in one of the traps so that they can remove the collar. On a Sunday morning, we got a phone call to say that someone had been caught. With all hopes up, we arrived and found a female that seemed to be lactating. Before getting eaten and releasing her, I quickly snapped some side photos to later on compare them. To my surprise it was Foxtrot! ¡FOXTROT!. Foxtrot was the most photographed of leopards. She’s so popular and poses so beautifully for the cameras that if she were human, she would be the new E! host girl. In human terms this was like seeing Katy Perry, of Kate Hudson or even Julia Roberts. My theory for now is also that Foxtrot is the mother of Mike & Kilo – however I still don’t have proof of this. Younger ones don’t smile for the cameras like moms do!
Had I known a bit more about leopards, territories and behaviour back then, this (meeting Foxtrot) could have been predicted and potentially avoided(she wasn’t the target, Golf was). Leopards both males and females stick and protect a territory (spread of land with resources like food and water) where they can thrive and raise their cubs (females) or have mating opportunities and spread their genes (males) – typical. If she was the most photographed one, it was a good indication that the core of her kingdom was somewhere around the cameras where she was being spotted. But like they say, you connect the dots going back. The important thing is not to accept something just because, but find out how, when and more importantly why. Nature is a puzzle of wildlife that we can learn from and learn of the more we become fascinated by her ways, and while some things happen at random, some other can be expected.. if you have the patience to learn their ways.
After so long, and even without knowing it, it was a pleasure to meet her at last!
I never saw her again, but every now and again a snap told me she was just doing what leopards do best: living free, and that was enough.