by Brian Jackman, The Telegraph, November 15, 2017
High up in the fork of a flowering kigelia crouched a leopard. So perfectly did her coat blend with the dappled light and shade that even when a flock of lovebirds flew into her tree, their bright button eyes failed to spot her.
The birds had come for the nectar held in the tree’s trumpet-shaped flowers. Now, as they fed, they shook down a shower of crimson blossoms, attracting a herd of impala that gathered around the base of the tree, unaware that 20ft above their heads lay sudden death in a spotted coat.
Hardly daring to breathe, we sat and waited while the impalas continued to nibble at the fallen flowers until the leopard flowed like water down the trunk and launched herself into the midst of the panic-stricken herd. When the dust cleared it was obvious she had missed, and we watched her walk away, tail held in an elegant question mark as if to say: where did I go wrong?
“That was Malaika,” said Patrick Njobvu, my guide at Kaingo Safari Camp. Giving names to wild animals has been going on for decades, but the practice is now widespread throughout Africa – as viewers of wildlife documentaries will know. One well known example is Lion Country, the three-part series filmed around Kaingo and screened on ITV earlier this year. It featured the named big cats of Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park, including Malaika.
Kaingo is the dream of Derek Shenton, a third-generation naturalist and son of a former senior ranger in Luangwa who built the camp in 1992. At its heart stands the massive trunk of a fallen leadwood that Shenton reckons was 1,000 years old. “We used a chunk of it to make our bar and the wood was so tough it took us three days to cut through it.”
While the camp was under construction, Shenton became aware of the regular presence of a beautiful female leopard he called Goldie, who shared his life for the next 10 years and is why the camp is called Kaingo – the word for leopard in the local Nyanja language.
Patrick, who has worked at Kaingo ever since it opened, knows all the individuals who roam around his particular corner of leopard heaven. Luambe, Golden Balls, Grumpy, Tyson… one by one he reels off their names. “Tyson is my favourite,” he says. “Such a lovely guy, so big, so handsome; that’s why I like him.” Then there are the females: Mama Kaingo, Shy Girl, Chiphadzuwa – Malaika’s grown-up cub – and, of course, Malaika herself, who is six years old and is Goldie’s daughter.
With more than eight leopards to every 38 sq miles (100 sq km), they even outnumber the lions – but it is the latter that hold centre stage in this, one of their last true strongholds. According to the Zambian Carnivore Programme, more than 500 lions roam the valley, split into 18 different prides and 14 coalitions of footloose males.
Luangwa’s most famous lion is Ginger, so-called because of his unusual strawberry blond mane, orange tail tuft and pink toe pads, the result of a condition known as erythrism. He and Garlic, his brother, have become top tourist attractions, but conservationists fear they may suffer the same fate as the late-lamented Cecil after Zambia lifted its hunting ban in 2015. So long as they stay in the park they are safe, but if they stray into the adjacent game management areas they could easily find themselves in the hunters’ crosshairs.
That was the fate that overtook Tangu, one of the two dominant males of the Hollywood pride, whose territory stretched around Kaingo. When he was shot last year his twin brother could no longer protect the pride and they were driven out of their hunting grounds by three powerful newcomers. The Kaingo guides called them the Numbu Boys, but their scrawny manes and thuggish appearance soon earned them another name: the Punks. These were the villains who played such a prominent part in Lion Country and were soon ensconced with a pride of their own in the Hollywood’s old domain.
In the hushed stillness just before dawn, a lion had begun to roar – a visceral, primeval sound that echoed among the trees and across the plains towards the distant hills that lay along the outermost edges of the valley. Now, having gulped down a mug of campfire coffee, I set out to find him. With Patrick at the wheel of his open Land Cruiser we headed north to where the Punks had last been seen. Cape turtle doves cooed from the overhead branches, while impala browsed in the early morning light as if embalmed in amber.
Luangwa is largely a woodland park of giant trees whose gnarled trunks, rubbed smooth by generations of elephants, were standing here long before Livingstone crossed the valley in 1866. But in a little while we left the oxbow lagoons and their ebony groves and drove out on to an open plain of shrivelled grass and scattered thornbush.
By mid-morning the valley was a furnace. A dazzle of zebras, stripes flickering in the heat haze, plodded in line along the horizon as vultures sailed overhead on an endless hunt for carrion. Lulled by the doves’ hypnotic calls, I could feel myself submitting to the heat, falling into a trance-like state of delicious serenity from which I was only awakened by the sudden presence of three shaggy heads under a shady acacia.
There was no mistaking the Punks. Surrounded by a dozen lionesses and cubs of various ages, they had been demolishing the carcass of an old bull buffalo and their muzzles were red with gore. Now, as we drew closer, they stopped feeding and turned to face us.
How well they had been named. Somehow, their shaven skulls gave them a sinister air of implacable menace as they returned our gaze with pitiless eyes. Mohawk, the dominant male, in particular seemed to be the embodiment of wildness, and later in the week when we moved to Nsefu on the other side of the Luangwa river, I discovered he was known there as Balotelli because of his rakish topknot, resembling that of the Italian footballer.
Overlooking a huge bend in the Luangwa river, Nsefu’s six thatched rondavels were built in 1951, making this the oldest camp in the park. Since then it has had several makeovers after being reopened in 1998 by Robin Pope Safaris, but it still boasts the same incomparable views of the river, wider than the Thames at Westminster but reduced to a trickle in the dry season, winding in languorous channels from one hippo pool to the next across a linear desert of burning beaches.
Nsefu also offers the same joys as Kaingo; the same far-spreading trees and their sleeping leopards, the same unnerving thickets in which there is always the possibility of going head-to-head with elephant, buffalo or lion, and the same shrilling colonies of carmine bee-eaters that fly up from the riverbanks as you pass by, only to fall back like a shower of rose petals.
But this time Nsefu also provided one of those standout moments that live with you forever. We had set out on an afternoon game drive and the sun was already setting when we came upon a dead impala. The leopard that killed it had gone to fetch her cub, but by the time they returned they found the carcass being fought over by hyenas and could only watch from the safety of a tree.
By now night had fallen, and just as we were about to leave we switched on the spotlight to see five wild dogs, the painted wolves of Africa, with wicked grins and coats like dappled woodland glades.
The dogs had been attracted by the hyenas’ gibbering voices and immediately set about them, snapping at their rumps as they flitted in and out of the spotlight’s beam.
Then, to complete the drama, six lionesses from the Nsefu pride emerged from the shadows. Walking shoulder to shoulder, they piled into the melee with a volley of earth-shaking grunts, and for once it didn’t seem to matter if they had names or not.
How to do it
Brian Jackman travelled with Expert Africa (020 8232 9777; expertafrica.com). It can arrange a one-week safari to South Luangwa with three nights at Kaingo and three nights at Nsefu from £5,070 based on two sharing, including flights from London.
The Zambian Carnivore Programme (zambiacarnivores.org) is a non-profit trust dedicated to conserving the country’s big cats and wild dogs.