Villiers Steyn, head of the predator research program at Mashatu Game Reserve, sits in the front seat of a Toyota Land Cruiser wearing a pair of earphones. They’re attached to a radio receiver and antenna that has locked onto rapid faint clicks transmitted from a collar around the neck of a female leopard. The vehicle’s lights swerve away from a mashatu tree and point downward into a dry streambed where two red glowing eyes reveal Steyn’s elusive leopard as she lies in the open, a half-devoured impala carcass at her side. “You’ve got to remember that you’re tracking a ghost,” Steyn whispers. “You’re working with an animal designed to disappear right in front of you. Isn’t she gorgeous!”
As a child Steyn couldn’t get enough of the African bush. He knew he wanted to work with wildlife, particularly predator cats. Today, as a graduate student at Tshwane University of Technology in Pretoria, South Africa, he is living his dream. Since February 2005, Steyn has managed to trap and collar three female leopards. At least once a day, he gathers his radio equipment and drives the reserve to find the creatures and carefully plot their locations on a map. The project involves determining the home ranges of leopards and how long they stay within a specific area. He is also identifying and monitoring the leopards’ competitors in the reserve: lions, cheetahs, and spotted hyenas.
Much remains unknown about the nocturnal, secretive, solitary leopard, which can weigh up to 150 pounds (70 kilograms) and stand 28 inches (71 centimeters) (See WildCard) at the shoulder. Even an estimate of Mashatu's actual population is little more than a collective guess. Steyn and the reserve’s rangers and trackers put the number somewhere between 40 and 80. “This reserve is fantastic for leopards,” Steyn says. “It’s ideal habitat with a lot of dry riverbeds, which they use to raise their young and claim as territory by marking with urine. The thick vegetation along the riverbeds is also a good place for hunting, and there are plenty of large trees in which to stash their prey.”
Growing numbers mean more interactions with humans, who have prized the animals since prehistory for their dense distinctive coats. But people have also hated leopards for killing their livestock, and landowners of properties that surround the reserve grow more concerned with each report that a leopard has been seen near grazing lands. “It's brought on a lot of conflict,” Steyn says. “Part of my efforts are to serve as an adviser, impart as much information as possible, and do what we can to reduce the problem.”
Still in its early stages, the study has led Steyn to develop a deeper respect, even love, for these big cats. “Now I’m actually sharing my life with them."
(Photographs by Roger de la Harpe, Africa Imagery)