SICK and desperate, the young leopard braved one of Joburg’s busiest roads in search of a meal. His stomach was empty except for the maggoty roadkill he had managed to scavenge.
That’s how conservationist Kelly Marnewick imagines the final hours of the sickly male leopard, whose carcass was discovered on the congested Hendrik Potgieter road in Roodepoort last week.
“That this is our first confirmed sighting of the leopard is testimony to how well they avoid humans and fly beneath the radar,” says Marnewick, programme manager of the carnivore conservation programme of the Endangered Wildlife Trust. “It shows you how amazing and adaptive these animals are.”
The leopard’s discovery took her by surprise. “But it is very plausible. It’s incredible what still occurs out there. We ride our mountain bikes up on the Witwatersrand Ridge where there are porcupines, caracal, black backed jackal, genets and small antelope. You can still hear jackals in (nearby) Ruimsig calling at night.”
Last week, a passing motorist was stunned to find the animal’s carcass on the busy road, near Little Falls Pleasure Resort. He took it to the Strubens Valley veterinary clinic, which contacted the trust. “We realised the carcass was very fresh and the post-mortem by (Joburg Zoo’s) Dr Brett Gardner revealed the leopard was a sub-adult male which had succumbed to pneumonia.
“There were no signs of bruising or trauma. It definitely wasn’t hit by a car. There were no obvious signs of him being in captivity. He was in very good condition and wasn’t underweight. But he hadn’t eaten for the past couple of days and his entire system was empty except for rotten, maggoty road kill. That’s probably why he was on the main road. He was ill and desperate and scavenging what he could.”
Marnewick says a study using camera traps is being conducted on a population of leopards in the Cradle of Humankind and there is a possibility the dead leopard could have dispersed from that area to carve out his own territory.
“This whole ridge extends all the way down to the Magaliesburg. It goes through the Walter Sisulu National Botanical Gardens, Featherbrook Village, Kings Kloof and all the way to Sterkfontein Caves. It’s all open (for wildlife).”
Andrew Hankey, assistant curator of the botanical garden, says there was an unconfirmed sighting of a leopard on a 4x4 trail in its expansive grounds in 2005. “It’s amazing. It just shows you how important a ridge system (the Roodekrans-Pardekraal) this is and how many secrets it holds. The leopard got all the way here and if he hadn’t died we probably wouldn’t have known about him. They are very secretive animals and potentially migrate through the ridge system without us knowing that any exist.”
Nakedi Maputla, who is completing his Phd on leopard population dynamics in Kruger National Park, thought he had encountered leopard scat on a visit to the gardens’ waterfall in 2010. “People have written about how leopards can live pretty much anywhere. I never in my wildest dreams thought there would be one in the middle of Joburg.”
But Hankey, who is fighting for the creation of an urban wildlife reserve on the ridge system, says “massive development pressures” threaten the wildlife that remains.