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Saturday, April 1, 2023

‘Sir, I’ve spotted a leopard’

Durban – Leopards have always been lurking around the Midlands, though they are rarely seen and even more rarely photographed.

Hence, it was a snapping scoop for a Hilton College teacher this week when he shot a picture of one sitting peacefully on a slab of rock in the school’s nature reserve, part of its 1 600ha estate.

It was first seen by Grade 12 pupil James Cole, who spotted the leopard with his naked eye before teacher Carl Schmidt took a picture using his cell phone.

Cole said he was shocked.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes. I’ve grown up hunting and am trained to spot wild animals. I know how rare a sighting this is.

“I feel really honoured that I found an animal of such magnificence in our school’s game reserve.”

Cole says he spotted the “big and healthy” leopard, about 400 to 500 metres away, at 12.41 on Monday.

“At 17.30 he was in the same spot. If you see a leopard in the wild it’s because he wants you to see him. A big, healthy leopard poses no threat to people because it’s able to hunt. And leopards are shy and scared of people, unless they feel threatened.

“I spoke to a tracker who works in the Umgeni Valley Nature Reserve and he said a sighting like this is highly unusual,” said Cole, who plans to study law and specialise in environmental law.

After Cole’s initial sighting of the leopard, an exchange of views followed with Schmidt.

“Sir, I’ve spotted a leopard.”

“Rubbish,” Schmidt replied.

However, on seeing that young Cole was on point, Schmidt took a cell phone shot. Later in the day, school chaplain Sean McGuigan went to the spot with a better camera but lacking the best choice of lens.

The school confirmed that nowhere in its museum is there a picture of one of the extremely shy and solitary felines taken on the school estate. Photographs and artefacts tell the story of the institution that began in 1872.

The book Stories of Hilton College: An Anthology, marking the 150th year, documents a schoolboys’ estate adventure involving a huge python in 1921. A video clip, also produced last year, shows rare estate sightings of brown hyena, black-backed jackal and African weasel.

But, it would seem that the Big Five rosetted cat, classified vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature because of habitat loss and hunting, and known to science as Panthera pardus pardus, had never been captured through a lens on the estate until now.

“An apex predator is a good indicator that the area is well protected,” said estate manager Sean Lindsay.

Over the past two years, there have been sporadic and brief sightings of a leopard in the uMgenyane Conservancy, which also includes neighbouring and nearby properties.

Lindsay added: “It may be the same animal, which we suspect is a male.”

In 2000, the school set aside 650ha for conservation.

“With the help of the school community, the area was fenced and some larger game introduced,” the 150th-year book documented.

“This was followed by negotiations with Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife aimed at proclaiming the conservation area a nature reserve under the Biodiversity Stewardship Programme.

“In January 2011, the Hilton College Nature Reserve was fully proclaimed. The wilderness that has contributed to the Hilton experience since 1872 has been permanently secured.”

Plans are afoot to enlarge the reserve, which is home to nyala, bushbuck, impala, wildebeest, giraffe, zebra, warthog, caracal, serval and jackal as well as a variety of smaller creatures.

Stories of Hilton College: An Anthology, includes in its write-ups of achieving old boys conservation giants such as Guy Balme, director of the Leopard Programme for the Panthera Corporation, a New York-based organisation devoted exclusively to the conservation of the world’s 40 wild cat species and their habitats.

He told the Independent on Saturday that in the photo, the leopard indeed looked like a young male, which typically disperses, wandering away from where they were born in search of a mate and establishing their own territories.

Balme said, however, that the chances of him finding a female in the area were slim.

“What’s most exciting is that this first confirmation of a leopard being on the estate came from a hand-held camera.”

Camera trapping was the norm, as had been done to spot the brown hyena, black-backed jackal and African weasel, he said.

Other conservation giants mentioned in Hilton College: An Anthology are Namibian gynaecologist Jock Orford who, in pursuit of alternatives to culling, has done, “pioneering research into the effectiveness of contraception of lions in the wild”; farmer-conservationist Vincent “Leo” Robertson who was instrumental in establishing SA’s first Wildlife Conservation Society and whose efforts impressed Transvaal Republic President Paul Kruger; eSwatini wildlife legends Ted Reilly, who was involved in rescuing wildlife during the filling of Lake Kariba, and his son, Mick; US environmental advocacy stalwart and ornithologist Roy Pilcher; brothers Harold and Alfred Millar, a wildlife artist and supplier of insects to museum collections.

Then there’s “Wac” Campbell, founder of the National Parks Board and Mala Mala Game Reserve as well as a driving force behind the establishment of rest camps at the Kruger National Park. The Campbell Hut Museum at the park’s Skukuza camp is named after him.

Headmaster George Harris says it is a privilege to co-exist with nature.

“Hilton College takes seriously the responsibility entrusted to us to steward our natural resources wisely.”

The photo of the first leopard known to be photographed on the school estate spread quickly on social media on Monday, the day members of a past pupils’ WhatsApp group learned of the untimely passing of one of its members, Dave Hyslop, from the class of 1977.

“Fitting send off for Dave,” one of his old schoolmates, Lusaka lawyer Andrew Howard wrote on the group chat.

The Independent on Saturday

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