The craggy, mountainous landscape of Emakhosini Ophathe Heritage Park in the heart of Zululand, South Africa, is the location for the current Panthera/Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife Leopard Survey. This landscape takes your breath away as the dry grasses and dark, dead-looking trees of winter begin to change to spring, great bursts of vivid green tinge the bush, and yellow wildflowers begin to cover the grass. This is Africa, and it’s extraordinary.
We have been privileged to meet some of the local people, who work as rangers in the important anti-poaching units in the park. We have also met some of the local farmers, who take great pride in managing herds of Nguni cattle. A breed of cattle that was once synonymous with the great Zulu chiefs of old. These are hard-working people with a commitment to the land, the animals and the ancestral heritage of the communities who live here within Emakhosini Ophathe Heritage Park. We are happy that they have welcomed us and are helping us in our work.
The Ophathe team of five volunteers is led by Lisa who has such an obvious passion for her work. She encourages and pulls together our team and keeps us going with sweet treats like chocolate muffins on Sunday. Lisa seems to have the strength and energy of three people and working with her is such a pleasure.
The work we’re doing, putting up camera traps to visually capture and find out how many leopards are here in Ophathe, is vitally important to the survival of the species. The information collected will enable the park to better manage the leopard population and give the leopards a better chance of survival in the future.
We’ve been working long days, driving along “roads” that would be a challenge to off-roading enthusiasts. We’ve been banging in posts into the hard ground, cutting away any moving grasses that might trigger the cameras and waste shots, programming cameras and fixing them to the posts. The camera sites have been judiciously selected by Panthera from views of Google Earth, to be optimum leopard locations and are carefully spaced out to allow for the best results.
At the end of our long days, we come back to camp feeling like we’ve been working hard on something worthwhile. Even when we have to check our bodies carefully for any ticks we may have picked up in the long grass! The cameras are all sited now, and the census has officially begun. Tomorrow we’ll start checking the cameras for photos. We’ll probably capture some Nguni cattle, maybe wildebeest or impala and if we’re lucky, we’ll start to see some leopards too.
While driving across the rough Ophathe landscape, we’ve seen so many beautiful animals: impala jumping nervously across the bush, herds of wildebeest both near and far, elegant, giraffe who gaze at us with curiosity as we slowly drive by. Zebra families filing across our view, kudu with their delightfully comical large ears.
This is truly a magical place and we’re honoured to be able to feel like we’re making some small impact in maintaining it and its beautiful predator inhabitants, the leopards.
Written by Danila Mansfield
Photographs by Karsten Winkle