On Sunday April 20, a tragedy unfolded at the gate of Lower Sabie in the Kruger National Park (KNP). A leopard was caught in a funnel between an electrified fence and a wall. The many cars, people milling around outside their vehicles, noise and smells may have all contributed to the animal's death. In both accounts of the incident - one from a staff member and the other from a visitor - a plea for consideration and respect underlines concern for people's blatant disregard of park rules.
Nigel Aitken, a visitor from Johannesburg, and his son were both appalled by the incident. "As we approached the camp after our morning game drive, around lunch time, we noticed a couple of motor vehicles had stopped in front of the old entrance to the camp. On enquiry we found they were observing a leopard walking along the fence. "On spotting it, I realised it was heading towards the new gate. Knowing that this gate is normally manned by a guard just outside the cattle grid, we moved along towards that point to warn the guard.
Before we got there I realised there was no guard, however a vehicle exited the camp and as it passed over the grid the loud noise startled the leopard which turned and headed back towards the old gate. By now there were many vehicles that had stopped all down the old entrance road as well as along the main road. Suddenly the leopard seemed to panic and turned and tried to jump the electric fence. "In doing so it appeared to get itself entangled in one of the electric wires and it ran, attached to the fence, to the wall outside the main gate. It then seemed to get itself wedged between the wall and fence. Sadly all this time the electric current was cruelly shocking the poor animal.
"I drove just inside the camp and met a gentleman who said he was an electrician employed by SANParks. He knew the ropes and knew that the switch for the fence was in the guard hut. However, the guard hut was locked and no staff were to be found. Eventually after at least five minutes he managed to break open the door and switch the power to the fence off. Unfortunately by that time the leopard had been badly shocked and was only just breathing. It died shortly afterwards.
"It is unfortunate to think that we park visitors had unwittingly been the cause of this fine animal's horrible death. "It concerns me that although staff were summoned to the scene, little concern for the animal's life was displayed. I asked that they try to keep the curious public back from the scene but no action was taken. Had the wounded leopard broken free something nasty could have happened. I would like to think something could be learned from this tragic event."
Metsi Metsi trails ranger, Steven Oosthuizen, was in Lower Sabie rest camp when he noticed the huge traffic jam at the gate. When someone at the filling station told him there was a leopard stuck in the fence. His first query was whether there was an armed person on the scene upon which the reply was no. "I took my rifle out and got it ready. I then raced to the gate and was immediately shocked to see how many vehicles there were and how many people were out of their cars.
Irving Knight, head guide Lower Sabie, and Pieter Du Plessis, duty manager Lower Sabie, were already at the scene. "They had repeatedly told the guests to move away from the leopard. Irving had contacted Schalk, veterinary technician Skukuza, and Peter Buss, SANParks veterinarian based at Skukuza, who were getting ready to drive to Lower Sabie. "Bertus, the electrician at Lower Sabie, had already switched the electrical supply on the fence off. I then asked Irving to check if the leopard was still alive, while I stood ready with the rifle and found that the leopard was already dead."
Steven then walked around the fence on the outside of the camp pulled the leopard free. "Immediately there was a crowd of people surrounding us, taking photos." He said: "Some of the people there who had witnessed the sighting told me the leopard was walking along the fence towards the gate. There was immediately a huge traffic jam all along the road and the t-junction to the gate. The leopard then got nervous and ran into the fence a few times. He then tried to push himself through the fence at the gate wall where the fence forms a small funnel along the wall. "This is where he got himself stuck between the fence and the bottom electrical wires. He was then earthing himself and this made the electrocution more lethal."
Steven said according to eye-witnesses the leopard ws being shocked by the electrical current for about ten minutes. "According to Schalk and Dr Roy Bengis, state veterinarian Skukuza, who had performed the post mortem on the leopard, the male leopard was just past his prime at an age of about eight to nine years old in a healthy condition. There were huge bruises along his body and a deep cut on his rump where the electrical wires had made contact.
"This incident disturbs me and a number of my colleagues as the guests at the sighting had obviously boxed the leopard in and there were reports of guests hanging out of their vehicles. When the incident occurred there were a number of guests standing at the leopard, even though he was not dead yet. It could be beacuse they wanted to help him. However it was a foolish thing to do, as people are very quick to forget that this is a wild and very dangerous animal."Steven called for guests to "remember that this animal relies on its camouflage and when there are cars surrounding it, will become nervous. The fact that the cars surrounded him and the guests hanging out of their vehicles made this a very volatile situation.
"I urge the people visiting the park to comply with the park rules at all times. And to remember that wild animals just like people need their comfort zones. This leopard was completely boxed in by vehicles with his only escape through the fence. "The rules are for the safety of the animals viewed and most importantly the safety of all the people in the park, guests and staff. "Please be safe and patient with each other. And let's give these magnificent animals the respect they deserve."
Raymond Travers, spokesperson for the KNP responded to the incident: "Basically, the tragic story of the leopard that electrocuted itself on the electric fence surrounding Lower Sabie rest camp can be attributed to people not obeying the rules and regulations of the park. Leopards are opportunistic animals that do not enjoy the attention of people and therefore will try and move away if they see humans. This leopard was hemmed in from all sides by people out of their vehicles, their vehicles and the electric fence and it took what it thought to be the area of least resistance, the fence. This unfortunately turned out to be the leopard's downfall and, although KNP officials attempted to prevent the animal's death by turning off the electric fence, this was in vain.
With various studies and committees, KNP management is busy with a process that is revisiting the present visitor quotas in an attempt to make visits to the park more pleasurable for everyone by reducing the numbers of people and vehicles in the park at any one time, particularly during peak tourist season (SA school holidays and public holidays). Hopefully this process will also minimise the current tendency of traffic jams at game sightings (particularly leopard and lion) and hopefully help to prevent this sort of incident.
We also take this opportunity to repeat our plea to abide by the rules and regulations of the park AT ALL TIMES. To stay in your vehicles (even if you are close to a camp) and to not intimidate any animal you might see. Please report incidents like this as they happen to the KNP's Emergency Call Centre - 013 735 4325 and the closest law enforcement officer will be alerted."