Zizi and her cubs, Zel and Zandi
At the time that Shayamanzi was still building its predator camps, De Wildt already had leopards they wanted to relocate and release. Shayamanzi is leopard friendly and the habitat is perfect for leopards.
Just before Zizi, a female leopard, could be released, she had two cubs while in captivity. The two cubs remained in captivity with her for a few months to enable the cubs to grow stronger. On a rainy day they were to be released at Shayamanzi. Zizi, the mother, had a GPS collar fitted, while a small and non-permanent radio transmitter was fastened to the back of each cub.
Zizi is fitted with a collar
After they woke up again and the last preparations were made for their release, one of our film team members comes too close to one of the cubs and Zizi hits the cub away with one paw and gets between the cubs in the cage and the person.
The time for the release came and everyone was sitting patiently in the cars, waiting for Zizi to leave the cage. At first she seemed hesitant to leave het cubs behind and looked around. But then, in a split second, she stormed out of the cage and headed for the car in which Issie was. The window was slightly open to prevent the windows from fogging up in the rainy weather. Martin closed the window just in time. At the last second Zizi turned and stormed to the front of the car. The window on the other side was fortunately also closed. She vanished between the rocks and trees around the Panthera view point. Her two cubs remained behind in the cage...
After a few minutes we got out of the cars and everyone stood around, giving opinions about the survival chances of Zizi and her two cubs. The chances of survival for the two cubs were poor as they had never seen anything else than the four walls of a small brick room. The general feeling was that the cubs, coming from a brick room, would not be able to climb trees, much less to hunt and survive on their own.
Zel and Zansi left behind
We positioned an infrared video camera and a still trigger camera against a tree to monitor the area and left the cubs with the open cage, which served as their shelter for the time being. Zizi, against everyone's expectations, later came back for her cubs. We also learned both cubs clambered around in the trees as if they were jungle gyms. The one, Zandi, followed her mother through the border fence, but there their paths separated. The mother, according to the data from the GPS collar, walked many kilometres further into the mountains to a reserve in Northern Limpopo. According to the GPS collar, Zizi remained quite a while on Shelanti, a leopard-friendly reserve, before she moved on again. The owner of Shelanti reserve was happy with the female leopard on his farm and once saw her from a helicopter where she was hiding among the rocky outcrops.
The other cub, Zel, remained at Shayamanzi but if she would survive was an open question. She was later spotted again on Shayamanzi and her tracks were found regularly. She seemed to survive well, but that is a story for another day.
Watch a video slideshow of the collaring and release day:
Like most of the leopards we have released at Shayamanzi, Zizi never returned and she forever separated from her two cubs. If we had had a large enough camp at that stage, we could have released Zizi and her two daughters there, where they would probably have lived together for many years to come. Wild leopards in camps in the Bushveld, with its thousands of free-roaming leopards, have never really been a survival option that game farmers have used.
What we have photographed, information from the GPS collar and what happened in the following weeks and months, surprised everyone. Prof J du P Bothma, our scientist who does video interpretations, said that we have photographed quite a few firsts and up to now, unknown behaviours. Valuable secrets of these mysterious cats were photographed by our cameras.
Leopard camps with outcrops, trees, stones, holes, shrubs and water which simulate the natural environment of the leopard, are probably one of the best options that remain to conserve the endangered leopards. Of course the first option would be to keep them wild and free-roaming. Free-roaming on game farms means that nobody sees them and thus has little tourism value for game farmers. As soon as they obtain a tourism value, they will have a better chance of survival.
Watch a video slideshow of the data collected from Zizi's collar: