There is the inevitable sadness that will forever be associated with the loss of an animal that has become familiar to rangers, guests, photographers, and wildlife enthusiasts worldwide. In the Western Sector of the Sabi Sand Game Reserve, we feel this emotion at present due to the loss of a true little lady leopard that died earlier this week.
Mambirri, ( TWO - in the Shangaan language spoken by the local Tsonga tribe ) named so because of her 2 spot identification marks above each whisker line, was a leopard that called the area already mentioned above: home for a period of about 10 years.
Born to Makwela, and fathered by the Wallingford male, she was part of a litter of 3 females that all survived to independence, early in 2004. It was at this stage that this leopard became my favourite because of her amazing resilience, and her will and fight for survival.
I cannot remember the exact dates, but around the time of her independence, Mambirri was surprised by a lion pride at a large rocky boulder. She was caught unawares, and given a serious working over, leaving her torn to shreds, and unable to move on all four legs, constantly hobbling around on three paws. How she managed to get out of the clutches of the lions is still a mystery.
For a few weeks, we saw her losing condition rapidly, due to a cigar sized hole bitten right the way through her front right paw, and soon we did not see her at all anymore. The way of the wild was what everyone proclaimed, and we made peace with the fact that she had either died of starvation, or that she had been killed by larger predators.
Mambirri had all but disappeared from everyone’s minds, when one day, 8 months after Mambirri’s disappearance, a leopard was located deep in the south of the traversing feeding on a duiker that had been hoisted in a tree. Much debate followed about the “new” leopard in the area, until we could get a clear view of her spot pattern, and the healed front right paw that still showed the healing scar from her lion bite, and we could positively identify her as Mambirri.
She was slightly more nervous than before, but in a few weeks she had started to relax to the point where she would almost brush past the cars on her travels around her new territory. Her continuous pain was obvious as she walked with a limp for a few years , before normality returned to her gait. Every winter though, we would see her tighten up, and the stiffness return, and with it her limp would worsen. Her front paw had obviously healed, but would never be the same as before, and have weakness associated with it. She had survived by scavenging on the smallest of prey, mongoose, monkeys, rats, birds, etc, etc, until she was again strong enough to catch large prey items, what a fighter, never giving up!
Skipping forward a few years, after successfully raising 2 litters, it was about a month and a half ago that Mambirri was seen mating with the Kashane Male Leopard. These two honeymooners vanished for a while, and a week later a thin, hungry Mambirri was seen again after her marathon bout of mating with Kashane. She had started to spend time in the area left open by the death of Makubela Female in July, and seemed to have donated her old territory to her newly independent daughter Nthlangisa. Her condition was getting rather desperate, and this caused her to take a risk and attempt to catch a warthog in front of Idube Private Game Reserve where I am based.
Sitting in the office I heard the squeals, and went to try and investigate the source of the noise. A known warthog sow ran past me frantically searching for her single piglet, and it became obvious that it had been caught by a predator. Taking a vehicle to the front of the lodge did not help, for as I drew adjacent to the lodge, my staff alerted me to the fact that an injured leopard had just passed through the bar and boma area, into the river bed running in front of the lodge.
Monkey alarm calls over the next two days gave away the presence of the feeding leopard, but the area she was in made finding or seeing her impossible. On the afternoon of the third day she wandered to the lodge water hole, drank, and lay down. I had to take note of the earlier reports about her being injured, and went to investigate, only to see her right front paw in a horrific state, split down the middle, from her wrist, with 2 toes flapping on either side of the separation.
It seemed her earlier injuries, and weakened paw had come back to haunt her, and I could only guess that in an attempt to save her piglet, the warthog sow had charged Mambirri, at which Mambirri had attempted to slap away the advancing mother, which led to her getting a tusk through her paw, which then ripped out between her toes.
She vanished in the time that it took me to return to the lodge to get a vet dispatched via the Sabi Sand Wildtuin management, and no further action could be taken.
The following morning she was again in the lodge grounds, behind the kitchen, and a leopard, especially and injured one, cannot be left to wander around guests or staff. We dispatched the state vet, and wildlife managers to come and dart her to remove her from the Lodge, and would have assessed her condition and made decisions regarding her treatment at that time.
Unfortunately, the dart used to tranquillise her, never plunged, and she vanished before we could get another dart into her. We had hoped that she would survive, and possibly heal, but were rather pessimistic about the odds in her favour.
She was missing for two weeks, with no further sign or chance to get a vet to dart her, when the Local village alerted the reserve that a leopard had been seen outside the boundary fence, and was posing a threat to the lives of the inhabitants and their children. For over 2 weeks she was seen regularly, raiding the chicken coups of the subsistence farmers in the village, decimating their chicken and goat stocks, and being a threat to the inhabitants. Every time a report was received, a team was sent to find her in order for a vet to come and dart her, but alas, she evaded the teams time and time again.
On her last night, she had been seen charging at some people, and the team came to find her. They located her, and whilst waiting for a vet to arrive, she again made an attempt at entering the local village, looking at the severity of her injury a decision was made that she needed to be put down, before injuring, or even killing a person, or further jeopardising their livelihoods by catching any more of their poultry or live stock.
An immediate post mortem was conducted, and the reports were that she had severely dislocated bones in her foot, some broken bones, her foot had, as had been observed, been split in two, with half hanging on each side. The injuries were too severe for her to survive in the wilds, and thus she had resorted to raiding the village at nights to get food to survive.
Had we managed to get her darted the first day, we would not have been able to do much for her as her chances of survival would have been zero, she would have had depleted mobility, no chance of chasing prey, no real chance at protecting herself from competition, and she would have lost the ability and agility to climb trees, or protect her prey by hoisting it into the trees away from hyaenas or lions.
Further damming internal problems were revealed in the post mortem examination, which also supported the theory that she was not going to survive much longer. Her stomach contained only chickens, not sufficient for a wild leopards nutritional needs, but more alarmingly she was in a stage of liver failure, caused by her body producing, and needing to process the large amounts of adrenalin to combat her constant pain, which would have caused her death shortly. Her adrenal glands and kidneys were severely enlarged, and internal organ failure was a immanent.
I would like to think that her suffering was ended mercifully, and find solace in that fact. Her death thus comes as a relief, rather than just loss and sadness to us that knew her.
Rest now Little Lady, you experienced enough suffering in your life.