It started with a phone call.
“Do you still have those leopard traps?” asked Rob, a wildlife vet calling camp from Maun. Megan confirmed that we did. Our cage traps had not been used for a few years, but we knew one of them would be serviceable. – “Why?”
Rob explained he had been contacted by one of the local tourist camps about a leopard. It apparently had taken up residence with its young cubs in an unused (pandemic times) staff tent. Rob, more than 3hrs drive away by 4×4, would not be available immediately. So we agreed to go take a look.
At the camp, an officer named Kenosi from the Department of Wildlife and National Parks. identified himself and offered to show us – on foot – through to the staff quarters and the tent where the leopard apparently had made its den.
“Is she in there now?” I asked, rather urgently.
“No. She left this morning,” replied Kenosi. He seemed certain, but it was hard to share his confidence. The temporarily unused (since a large acacia had fallen on it and collapsed the front half) tent was among seven or eight identical semi-permanent wood framed canvas structures, arranged in a semicircle, erected on decks with doors all facing inwards towards a central communal area. The other tents were all in good condition, but the fallen tree had landed partially on the deck, sending it tilting backwards, shattering the tent windows and warping the door frame so that the door hung ajar.
“When I looked in the window this morning, I came face to face with her,” explained Kenosi. “Luckily she just ran away, through the door there.” It was encouraging to learn that the female was not overly aggressive about protecting her cubs, perhaps as a result of her apparent habituation to human neighbours. But still it felt like Kenosi had been more than just a bit lucky. The ‘window’ he had looked through was a flap that had been cut in the canvas, creating a porthole into the bathroom at the back of the tent. As we took our turn to peel back the canvas and peer inside, I hardly knew what to expect.
Even knowing there were cubs inside it was a shock to come face to face with two tiny leopards, pawing at each other lazily as they lay in a sunbeam amongst the broken debris littering the tent floor. They looked innocently up at our faces and appeared entirely unperturbed. One struggled to its feet and moved unsteadily towards us.
“OMG,” said Megan. Megan took a couple of quick photos and I grabbed a short video on my phone to help Rob age the cubs. We had seen enough to know what we were dealing with and didn’t want to push our luck. We backed hastily away, glancing nervously behind the tent, constantly expecting an angry, spitting adult leopard to explode out of the surrounding brush.
“What do you think?” asked Kenosi.
“It’s unbelievable,” I said. “How long have they been there?” Kenosi wasn’t sure. He thought they might have been discovered on Wednesday. Today was Sunday. But the cubs’ eyes were open. They must have been born at least a week ago. I looked at the neighbouring tents, just metres away from this unusual leopard den – too close for everyone’s comfort and safety as well as for this mother leopard.
“Let’s talk to the staff,” I said. “I want hear their thoughts about this.” Three men were working on a water pipe on one of the neighbouring tents. I asked them if they were scared about the leopard living next door. They seemed concerned but not nervous. They wanted the leopard gone, but they were not panicked..
“What about the person who lives in this tent?” I asked.
“She is not happy,” the men admitted. And I couldn’t blame her. We all agreed the leopard was too close and that something needed to be done. There was a proposal to translocate them, but we agreed trapping her wouldn’t be easy and it seemed like a poor option anyway. Darting a nervous and/or angry leopard in a fenced staff camp felt like a recipe for disaster. Besides moving them elsewhere, probably into another leopard’s territory, would surely be a death sentence for the cubs and probably the mother too.
After further discussion, we all agreed the 1st prize would be if we could encourage her to move the cubs herself – to somewhere more typical, in the bush and outside the staff camp. We thought if we could make her believe the den was less secure than she thought when she put her cubs inside, maybe she would move the cubs away. This plan would require the camp staff to agree and accept the plan, – possibly a big ask. Then there remained the government DWNP guys still to convince. We explained our thoughts about the risks of trapping or darting to Kenosi, but he initially looked doubtful. Further discussion however turned him enough that he seemed willing to consider our proposal.
Then, it was time to talk to Onks the camp manager. We again ran through the options, explaining why darting or trapping were options fraught with risk, and then we pitched our proposal to somehow evict the squatting leopard. He too was sceptical.
“What if she doesn’t move the cubs far enough away?” he asked. We conceded that was a risk, but argued it was unlikely. If she moved the cubs even 50m the chances were that nobody would see her or them again. It was plain that Onks remained unconvinced.
“Let’s call Rob for another opinion,” I suggested.
Megan immediately made the call. “Hey Rob,” said Megan. “We’re here at the camp trying to come up with a plan for this leopard.” She put him on speaker. We huddled around the phone and described to Rob what we had seen and our discussion. We went over the pros and cons, including the worst-case scenarios we could think of. In the end, Rob agreed our proposal and possible scenarios that helped explain it were consistent with his summary of the situation. He also described a similar situation in which a leopard had been successfully moved on with some sustained disturbance from a tent at another camp it had taken up residence in. After a confirmation call to Onks’ boss, we were given a green light.
This time we drove to the tent in the interest of caution over concern about a protective mother leopard. I scanned the surrounding bush from behind the windscreen which I had pulled up as a token defence in the otherwise open Land Rover. Megan began cutting a panel to open the side of the tent with the aim to of making the ‘den’ feel exposed in hopes the mother no longer felt her cubs were safe inside. Hoping we had done the right thing, we left for Dog Camp. Kenosi promised he would intermittently create a disturbance near the ‘den’ with noise and lights during the night, leaving quiet gaps to allow her to fetch and move her cubs. Morning would reveal whether our plan had worked.
Interfering with nature is always stressful. But we had little choice under the circumstances, as leaving the leopards where they were wasn’t going to be acceptable to anybody. A leopard had attacked several people and killed one at a camp in Xakanaxa earlier in the year. If we couldn’t make this leopard move out, the Wildlife Department would likely be compelled to shoot her as a problem animal. Kenosi had intimated as much when he told us that, one way or another, his job was to make sure the “problem” was solved.
We drove back the following morning, a knot in my stomach, and Megan admitting having a sense of nervous dread. Since our professional advice as scientists with expertise in predator behaviour, we were feeling responsible for whatever outcome happened. Blame if anything had gone wrong was not far from our concerns. Megan, perhaps more than me as the senior resident researcher. If the leopard died or was killed, or worse, someone was hurt, we could only imagine how we would feel or what the repercussions might be. But, anyway, we were involved. We gave our best counsel and explained our thoughts. So, now, what would we find?
As we pulled up, we saw the Wildlife Department vehicle parked behind the leopards’ tent. Kenosi, standing beside the truck, waved us over, his expression impossible to read.
“Good news. They’re gone,” he said. I felt a flood of relief. Our plan worked! The bad news, it seemed from the ongoing discussion, was that the leopards’ location was now unknown. But surely this was to be expected.
“This was the best-case scenario,” I emphasised. “She came back. She moved the cubs. Chances are high nobody sees them again. We don’t need to know exactly where she is – just that she’s no longer living in the staff tents.” Kenosi agreed but Megan wanted to check. She climbed through the aperture we had cut in the tent wall and began nosing around inside.
Then we all heard: “Oh s**t! They’re still here.” Sure enough, the cubs had only moved away from the opening we had made and found a dark corner to curl into. It was easy to see how the others had missed them.
“We need to get out of here,” I said, glancing not a little nervously once more at the surrounding bush. “We’re all at risk standing here.” We moved away to take stock. Now, our fear was that we had scared away the mum. We let Rob know the situation and he promised to drive out to the camp as soon as he could get away. All options were back on the table.
I had to leave but knew that Megan and Rob would come up with a plan and deal with the situation with both the leopards and the camp staff safety in mind. Sure enough, the next morning, Megan reported success. After I left, she and Rob had moved the cubs out of the tent and into a box. With the cubs safely outside the remaining structure had quickly been dismantled by the camp staff. The cubs were then left in the open box nearby. Perhaps we should have done this on day one but even our more minor interference had felt excessive at the time.
The result later that evening with Megan and others watching from a distance, saw the mother return. After a nervous moment when she appeared to miss them, the leopardess eventually located, and one at a time picked up and carried her exposed cubs away. She then simply disappeared into the nearby bush, melting away as leopards can. Maybe we will see them again in a few months – a healthy relaxed mum with two growing cubs. It seems unlikely that the cubs will remember much about their unusual start in life or a strange 24 hours when their world was clumsily invaded, but it is an experience I suspect none of the people involved, myself included, will ever forget.