It was a day that we knew had to come eventually, and whether we wanted to face it or not, deep down we all knew that it would be sooner rather than later. We would have to face the fact that our beloved queen of the central Timbavati would leave this world for another.
However, the arrival of her last litter of cubs in February of this year gave us hope and we all assumed that the old, but seemingly not aging, Nthombi leopardess would be around with us for at least a couple more years. Surely she would need to oversee the survival of her sixth, successful litter of cubs and eventually leave behind a suitable successor to her throne. At the age of almost 15, Nthombi was looking as good as she had at any point over the last few years. She definitely didn’t look like a leopard who was in the twilight years of her life, in fact she was a far cry from many of the other aged leopards that I have seen in the past. She still held onto a prime territory to the north-west of Tanda Tula Safari Camp and, despite her age, she was still doing a great job at providing for her two cubs: one boy and one girl. Things were looking extremely positive for her and, in turn, for us.
I was bumbling about during lockdown when Nthombi popped out from behind a termite mound and walked onto the road right in front of me, giving me a very pleasant surprise and a wonderful sighting. As we followed her while she went about her business she behaved as if I wasn’t even there, in a way that only she could. I lost her an hour or so later when she walked into the tangled thickets along the Nhlaralumi, and as I drove away from the area, not for a moment did I think that this would be the last time I would ever see her. Since I started working in the Timbavati back in 2007, Nthombi had always been around, and with the way she was going, it almost felt like she could be around forever.
As the weeks ticked by without a sign of her, and Nyeleti female leopard pushing deeper and deeper into Nthombi’s territory, we all began to wonder if the moment that we were dreading had arrived. As elusive as Nthombi had been during lockdown (which was due not so much to her being absent, but rather as a result of there not being many vehicles out looking for her, as well as no skilled trackers to help us find her), we always knew that she was still around due to her tracks criss-crossing the core of her territory. But, by late July, these tracks were no more. Possibly she had temporarily moved the cubs to the north, but when the guides there continued to respond in the negative when asked if there was any sign of her, our worries mounted. As the realisation dawned on us that something might have happened to Nthombi we held onto the hope that maybe, just maybe, she would still pop up.
Sadly, as August’s page was torn off the calendar, there was still no sign of her, and Nyeleti was very much at home in this part of the reserve – something that would certainly not have happened if the territorial Nthombi was still alive. Despite not finding any carcass or remains of her, we now all knew for sure that she was no more. Exactly how she met her end is nothing but speculation, but sadly far too reminiscent of the end that our other beloved leopardess, Marula, met last year. And much like Marula, my speculation is that it was lion related.
Marula had likely met her end at the claws and teeth of the Zebenine lionesses who were sharing the core of her territory at the time, and my suspicion is that Nthombi had an unfortunate encounter with the River Pride who had taken up residence right in the heart of her territory over this period. Around the time that Nthombi disappeared, the River Pride had lost five of their six cubs and were spending much time walking around the same area, day after day, seemingly searching for them. With the lions temporarily fixed to this area, the chances of them encountering Nthombi would have increased, and as predators that will go out of their way to catch and kill other, smaller competition, it is not unfathomable to picture that this is exactly what happened. Had Nthombi been injured or been sick, we would likely have bumped into her in a deteriorating state, but she was far from this period of her life. Hyenas may have gotten her, but she was a wise, old and experienced cat, and it seems unlikely that she would have gotten herself into such a position. Whatever happened to her, the reality is that she is now gone, and as a result of her demise, so too are her two young cubs.
Nthombi left behind a big hole – driving around her territory now is a slightly hollow feeling, as you know that you are not going to drive around the corner and find her ambling down the road. However, Nthombi also left behind a number of progenies, and an awfully large number of memories for guides, trackers and guests alike. As mentioned, the territorial hole that she left has already been commandeered by Nyeleti and her son, and in time, nature will give us some more superstar leopards to torment the impalas of this area.
From an offspring point of view, Nthombi was a wonderful mother and successfully raised six young male leopards to adulthood, many of which established themselves as dominant males across the Timbavati. She started out with her first son, Umfana, in 2010. He was followed by Ntsongwaan, a male, in 2012 – an impressive tom that we still see in our southern traversing area. Ntsongwaan was forced into independence at a mere 13 months old when Nthombi had two more male cubs in early 2013, and both Ntima and Tshwukunyana are seen in the northern Timbavati. In 2015, she added Mondzweni to her growing list of male cubs. Nthombi’s first failed litter was in mid-2017, when she had a young female cub (at least it looked like a gal), but sadly this cub disappeared when it was only a few months old. The Hlangana male was her last successful cub, and he was born in mid-2018 and successfully reached independence last year, and still shows up from time to time. All in all, Nthombi showed that over and above being a successful hunter, she was a wonderfully successful mother, and more than achieved her goal of passing on her genes. Through these young males, her legacy will live on.
She also left a lifetime of memories that will live on in the minds of all those lucky enough to have spent time in her presence. From my very first sighting of her back in 2007 (when she wasn’t yet two years old), to the very last moments with her 13 years later, she never failed to astonish me with just how comfortable she was in the presence of vehicles and clicking cameras. It became very difficult to not anthropomorphise when viewing her, as she seemed to have an incredibly gentle nature, and an understanding that the humans living in her world were never out to hurt her. This was brought home best when tracking her on foot, and I remember watching in wonder one afternoon when I was with a tracker who almost stepped on her in long grass as we were following up on a drag mark. She had seen us walking around following the tracks, but didn’t growl, charge or even move off until literally the very last second. And when flushed, she simply ran off 20m, and lay down again to watch us. It was as if she knew we meant her no harm. This trust in us also meant that she was always completely comfortable raising her cubs in our presence – the greatest compliment she could ever have given us. These moments contrast so strongly against other sightings I saw her fighting off hyenas to protect her cubs, or efficiently dispatching of impalas, duikers, scrubs hares or anything else that caught her attention.
It would take many more blogs to fully capture the memories that Nthombi left for me, let alone all the countless magical moments she gifted our guests over the years. So instead of words, I will share a few of my favourite photos taken of her over the past 13 years. A small tribute to say thank you for letting us share in your world Nthombi. You may be gone girl, but you will never be forgotten…thank you for every moment you allowed us to spend with you.