Zizi and her two cubs, Zel en Zandi, were released together at Shayamanzi. Zizi didn’t want to leave her two cubs alone and was very protective in the release cage. Zizi ran out of the cage with aggression and speed and left her two cubs. She returned in the night and Zandi followed her to the neighbouring farm. Zel wandered off on her own. Zizi, Zel and Zandi were really three beautiful leopards, each with her own character and will. According to information from Zizi’s GPS collar she chose the northern part of Limpopo and made her home in a leopard-friendly reserve.
Zel wandered around near the Phantera viewpoint, where they had been released, for a day or two. Zel and Zandi both received a small radio transmitter on the neck. The transmitters were glued to the neck and they usually fall off in the moulting season. Small cubs cannot be equipped with collars as they are still growing and the collars might strangle them. Zel and Zandi proved quite a number of expert perceptions as wrong. Since their birth they were kept in a small brick room and most experts believed that after four months in the small room, they would not be able to climb trees.
On the first night of their release, we photographed Zel en Zandi, who remained near the area of release. They probably waited for their mother to return. Some experts believed that predators such as jackals would quickly kill the cubs. Well, the two left the cage on the first night and got into a tree, running around as if they grew up in trees, and rapidly learnt how to avoid predators.
After Zandi had followed Zizi, Zel chose her own route in the direction of the main camp. We found Zel’s signal near Tshwene, the place where a large troop of baboons always spend the night. We feared that the large baboon males had killed her.
Her radio transmitter lay between the rocks, but there was no sign of her. Maybe the baboons had eaten her. Baboons do eat meat.
A few days later the building contractor, Happy, phoned us from the farm and said he saw a “massive cat” the previous evening, which had killed and eaten a small cat. I went to the farm the following day to see what was going on.
The remains of the small cat we put in the store room. The same night the leopard came back to fetch the remains of the small cat.
Petrus and Niklaas immediately recognised the tracks around the store room as those of Zel. The following few nights some of the peacocks started to vanish. The small leopard gets into the tree, chases the peacocks who sit sleeping high on the branches, and then bites them to death on the ground. Again the two cubs rewrote the books as it is very rare that four-month-old leopard cubs will survive on their own in the wild African environment.
We also immediately realised that a young, hungry leopard around the house could be dangerous for humans, especially for small children. The options for Zel didn’t look too good as she is used to humans around her cage since she was very small. She should either go back to a cage (zoo), be put down or get her own large camp.
Zel in any way first had to be caught again. A cage was put alongside the fence where she regularly crept through to catch the ducks of the neighbour. On the same morning that KykNet made a television series on the farm, Zel was caught in the cage. She was treated like an actress and was photographed from every angle. These films were later used by KykNet at the beginning of every episode of a series of thirteen episodes. Zel was soon well known across South Africa and there was no way that she could be put down or given to a zoo.
Nature Conservation gave the necessary permits to permanently keep Zel. She was kept in a cement and chicken wire room while her 1ha camp was made ready.
The big day eventually arrived that Zel could be released into her 1ha camp. Zel got another chance on survival, this time in her own camp among rocks and trees. The vet and a few other people were present when Zel was released in camp 2. In the camp next to her were the two sisters, Zaza and Ziana.
Zel calmly jogged through camp 2, along the electrified fence, a type of fence she didn’t know yet. An exciting and grateful moment changed into a nightmare in a few seconds when Zel got entangled in the electric wires. Seconds felt like hours when I shouted to Petrus to switch off the fence. He did it fast, but it seems as if we were too late. Zel sank to the ground and stayed in one position. Few animals will be able to survive the electric shocks for longer than 20 seconds.
She remained lying dead-still for long, then suddenly got up and drunkenly walked away. Another time she had played with death and survived, but possible infection of the cardiac muscle was the vet’s major concern.
Zel recovered excellently and became a beautiful, healthy young female leopard that survived almost three and a half years in the natural leopard camps at the top of Makoppa Mountain at Shayamanzi. The leopard camps were baptised as Leopard Kingdom, as the leopards have a natural camp to themselves without predators. In addition they are fed beef.
It became time to bring the young male, Zorro, and Zel together...
Zorro and Zel were together for a few months in camp 4. Zorro was one of the angriest male leopards ever at Shayamanzi and Zel one of the calmest female leopards. The two adapted well together, except for one fight over a piece of meat that was captured on camera. We wondered if the two had learnt to know one another better. For safety reasons we decided to separate them. She went back to camp 3 and Zorro remained in camp 4.
We remained hopeful that Zel had become pregnant after her long stay with Zorro. Female leopards are good in hiding their pregnancy and don’t shout it from the roofs to other predators. Other predators know that leopards are a big danger and won’t hesitate to kill their cubs. It seemed as if Zel moved around her camp more regularly to patrol and protect her territory.
It also seemed as if her behaviour had changed. It was as if she crossed the camp in search of something. Maybe to see whether there were other leopards or dangers such as snakes, or maybe finding a larger hole or cave to give birth. A pregnant female is extremely dangerous and will protect her cubs and her territory with her life.
We patiently waited for Zel to get her first cubs. She would be the first female leopard at Shayamanzi to have cubs in a 1ha holding camp. The excitement towards this great day was interrupted rudely one morning….
At the bottom of camp 3 a sad story waited for us... I was in Pretoria and was turning the internet cameras to see where Zel was. What I saw at the bottom of camp 3 on the camera was heart-breaking. I have never thought I would cry if something happened to a leopard. She arrived as a cub of four months old and was now almost four years old. This whole scene indicates that she was pregnant. She patrolled her camp and territory and we all believed she was pregnant and prepared to protect her territory and her unborn cubs with her life. In the corner of camp 3 Zel got into a fight with a wild female outside the camp, with the fence in between them. She wasn’t afraid of the 10 000 volts in the wires and she got entangled in the corner wires. On her first day in her camp she had survived the electrical fence, but this time her luck had run out.
She was so focused on the wild female that she couldn’t get out of the entangled wires. Her last moments must have been awful. She lay among the wires with blood coming from her nose and mouth. She wasn’t pregnant and we couldn’t find cubs in the camp, maybe they were hidden beneath shrubs and did not survive without a mother. The large, natural camps at Shayamanzi keep other predators out, protect the leopards within and the people on the outside, but sometimes all one’s precautions for conservation and laws that have to be abided by, have the opposite effect. Yes, it is the exception that it happens, but we didn’t want Zel’s beautiful story to end in this way.
Zel’s legacy and fighting spirit stay alive in the stories we tell and in the songs dedicated to these special leopard characters at Shayamanzi. Zel’s name is derived from our daughter’s name, Izelle.
Zizi is derived from my wife’s name, Issie. I often call her Zizi-Top. It is nice on the tongue and was the name of a band in our youth that made good music. Issie loves music.