Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Spots before my eyes...

During the last couple of days I've been seeing spots.
And no ordinary spots.
Yesterday's were sublime; today's ghastly.

Let's start with the sublime.

When I set out to walk the dogs last night, I forgot to put my camera in my pocket. Realising while still in the garden, I chose not to go back. 'Bring on the leopards', I quipped to the dogs (dogs respond more favourably to quipping than cats or mongooses).

Twenty minutes later, Magic (my husky-cross) began tugging at the leash, eager to chase something she'd spotted up ahead. There was a noisy mob of guinea-fowl strutting about the track where it crested the hill ahead of us, so I assumed Magic was keen to sup on fowl (which are very spotted too, by the way).

We trekked on up the hill, Magic dragging me along (boy, can huskies pull) and the guinea-fowl squawked and squabbled their way off into the bush. But as we rounded the next bend, two things happened simultaneously. My dogs caught a whiff of something VERY exciting at the edge of the path (jerking me almost off my feet as they doubled back to investigate) and I glanced up to see a very large leopard 30 m (100 ft) away. He was nonchalantly strolling along the track ahead of us, oblivious to our presence. His pace was so relaxed and leisurely, I could almost see him smelling the flowers.

The cat's whiskers. Meeting a leopard (Panthera pardus) is a rare and wonderful privilege.
Photo by A & L Meintjes.

White-tipped tail held jauntily high, he sauntered over to a trackside shrub, sniffed at the foliage and then luxuriously rubbed his cheeks against the twigs. He then turned, backed up to the shrub and sprayed a jet of urine up on to the leaves. With his scent-marking efforts complete, he strolled on. Meanwhile my dogs, busy feasting (metaphorically) on his previous contribution, didn't even see him.

Although I regularly come across leopard prints, I've only met a leopard in-the-fur twice before; despite three years of daily dog walking. This macho lad regularly enlivens our walks by leaving stinky stop signs at all the prominent road junctions. Worryingly large, these piles of droppings are always chockfull of fur, so while the dogs enjoy a sniffing-fest, I struggle to identify the ill-fated fur-bearer.

Yesterday's leopard was big. I don't know why our leopards are bigger than other people's, but every time I see a documentary on the leopards of the Cedarburg, or the Cape, or the coast, I go into shock. How can those squat little animals be leopards? Yesterday's cat was almost hip-height and close to 2 m (6 ft) long. I guess it's part and parcel of the species' versatility: these professional killers pad about all over Africa and across Asia as far as Korea and Manchuria. They're the only large carnivore stalking around the rainforests of Africa, and a frozen leopard carcass was found stuck in the ice at 5692 m (18,700 ft) on Mt Kilimanjaro (perhaps not a wise choice of habitat, in retrospect). They even cling on in places where smaller carnivores have been eradicated. How? Catholic tastes. A study in the Serengeti, for example, found that leopards munched 30 different prey species compared with only 12 chomped by lions.

Room with a view. Leopards are renowned for hauling their meals up into trees, but they only indulge in this habit if other big meat-eaters live in the area.
Photo by A & L Meintjes.

At about the same time that my dogs caught sight of yesterday's leopard, he became aware of us, turning to look back over his shoulder. Instantly he dropped into a low, slinking crouch and bounded away into the bush. I was left wrestling with my dogs (trying desperately to thwart their suicidal desire to give chase) and was quite unable to stop smiling.

Well they were the sublime spots, now for the ghastly.

Pepper ticks.
The Devil's own condiment.

Pepper ticks are just like normal, everyday ticks except they're tiny. Three could sit comfortably on the head of a pin (maybe four if they scrunched up). Just like regular ticks, they guzzle blood, inject you full of horrible parasites and leave huge, itchy lumps. And each one must be individually extracted and crushed (they do make a satisfying pop). However, unlike normal ticks, they hunt in swarms. Stumble on a pepper-tick hideout and you're polka-dotted with misery.

I'm not going to tell you how much pepper ticks make me suffer, or how they drive me into a frenzy of rage. Suffice to say that today, after a very pleasant morning with Ecthelion, I painstakingly removed 437 of them. And yes, I did count every one.

Overcome by pepper ticks?
Photo by Arno & Louise Meintjes (what wonderful people).


  1. Our Cederberg leopards are smaller than yours, because they don't 'eat so good'. Hot and dry thru the summer, and the farmer's don't like sharing their livestock.

  2. What a privilege to see leopard at such close quarters. The best I have done is to see one stop in front of me on the road at night when driving from RSA to Zimbabwe and not far from the border. I have never heard of pepper ticks and from what you say I have no desire to meet one let alone over 400!!! Diane

  3. Elephant Eye,
    Bonsai leopards!

    Be immensely thankful you've never encountered pepper ticks. They like to lurk in fairly moist bush - I've only ever met them around here and in the northern parks of KwaZulu Natal. They're said to be the ones that transmit (human) tick bite fever but I don't know if that's true. Certainly my new assistants inevitably contract it on their first day in the field!


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