Ziana's story

Female leopard spares my life

Ziana escping onto the catwalkYes, it sounds like an angler’s story after too much red wine. Another leopard mystery happens on top of the mountains near Leopard Castle at Shayamanzi.

A magazine editor is on her way to Shayamanzi to do an article on our leopard project and unmanned internet cameras. The same day is feeding time for the leopards – each in a 1 ha camp. The meat is taken out early to thaw and put in a bucket on the walkway ± 5 metres above the camps. The lever that regulates the electricity on the wire is for an unknown reason in the off position in camp 2 ­ Ziana, the female leopard’s camp is off. In the meantime it gets hotter, the meat thaws in the black bucket and the mountain wind blows the smell of blood across the camps.

Late in the afternoon, I, my magazine guest and my staff start with a visit to the leopard camps. I am awe-struck and freeze in my tracks… Ziana, the female leopard isn’t in her camp but is standing on the same walkway as us, less than 30 metres further on. She has a piece of meat in her mouth and watches us closely… Will she storm or will she run away with her piece of meat?

She turns around and runs down the 5 metres of steps into a passage in the camps. Cautious and slowly I get the group outside of the camps and jog past the steps she had used to get hold of the bucket with meat in order to attract her back to her camp.

She watched me from between the grass and realised that I was going to take her prey (bucket with meat) and run away with it. Within seconds she was back on the walkway, across the camps, and she started jogging in my direction. Petrus and I have been giving her food for five years and we know that if we throw a piece of meat in her direction, she grabs it and has no interest for anything else. Not this time though, she jumps over the meat and continues towards me. The distance between us gets shorter and the options become less. Desperately I throw another piece of meat…but she jumps over the meat and comes straight to me, now less than 10 to 15 metres away.

I realise that I only have my camera to fend her off. Maybe I should cross my arms across my face and neck, lie on my back and start kicking ferociously to kick her off the 5 metre high walkway into her camp below. Instinctively I take pictures of my last few seconds on Earth, in all directions except in that of the leopard.I remain going backwards but look straight into her eyes (also the wrong thing to do with an unhappy leopard). I talk/beg very loudly: ”Calm, calm, stand still old girl, eat your meat…!!” I believe my quivering voice, a voice she has known for five years, will calm her down. She is very close to me now and her yellow-green eyes are opened wide. I see her eyes focus on the bucket and realise that I have taken her “prey”.

I put the bucket down, she stops a few metres short of where I am and keeps looking at the bucket. I cautiously move backwards, she comes closer again and looks into the bucket.

Fortunately there is one piece of meat left. She takes the piece of meat, turns around and trots off, down with the steps into the passage to also hide that piece of meat. I realise that she will come back to fetch the other two pieces on the walkway and she is still outside her camp. Bewildered, tense, sweating and with many questions in my head I run to the two pieces of meat, pick them up and follow her, just to see how she vanishes between the long grass into the passage…

Fortunately my loyal staff had opened the gate to her camp in the meantime. She had turned around and was on her way back.

The moment she was alongside the open gate I threw a piece of meat into the camp. She heard and saw it, stopped and fortunately trotted into her camp, took the meat and went deeper into the camp. Within seconds the gate was closed and the electric wires switched on. I heard the anxious calls from our magazine guest and staff. I answered in a quivering voice that Ziana and the dear Lord had spared me this time around.

One question remains going through my head! Why hadn’t she killed me anyway, then taken the meat and gone off?

The answer will probably always remain a mystery, but I have a gut feeling. Adriaan, my technology specialist, tried to film our guest’s visit in Pretoria with one of the unmanned video cameras. He could film parts of the incident with Ziana and on my still camera there were a few skew and out of focus photographs.

While studying the photographs, the video shots and the images of Ziana in my subconscious, we try to unravel Ziana’s mysterious behaviour, who runs towards me but does not attack me. The film material shows that she trotted calmly and did not seem aggressive. Her ears weren’t flat against her head, although she was focused. What does make Ziana dangerous is that she is not shy of humans and therefore very unpredictable.

My gut feel is that over a period of five years, with many hours spent with food and a camera next to her and her sister, ZaZa’s camps, a special relationship has developed between us. Her body language indicated that she only wanted her meat back and did not want to harm me. Obviously I also want to convince myself that Ziana knows the hate for leopards and that she is well looked after at Shayamanzi. Sometimes one gets discouraged and it seems as if leopards will not survive.

If each game farmer only keeps two leopards in a camp with rocks, bush and trees and consider tourism, photography and even breeding (given permits), then 20 000 leopards can survive among 10 000 game farmers, even if it is in a large camp, i.e. not in a small, cement cage. Leopards are angry enough with each other to defend their territory to death. Much prey, and wrong prey for the environment, does attract many leopards, but the ratio remains intact. Kudu (ewes) prices remain low as their numbers remain high and they walk and breed among the leopards in the mountains, while a blesbuck will struggle to survive in the bushveld, even if it lives on a plain. Therefore, this is not a leopard problem, but a blesbuck problem or even worse, a problem caused by a management decision taken by a human.

Ziana, who definitely spared my life, encouraged me and strengthened my belief that Shayamanzi should continue to give leopards a second chance. During 12 years, 28 leopards have had a second chance at Shayamanzi. Our vision to fight for the survival of the leopard has not changed and with some balanced choices and even love for predators they can survive.

This story of Ziana has motivated us to have a song written, as we did for her sister, Zaza.