How two men’s work in the wild led to trust and reliance

Review: Vivien Horler

Changing a Leopard’s Spots – The adventures of two wildlife trackers, by Alex van den Heever with Renias Mhlongo (Macmillan)

I was once on a game drive in the north of the country, and we stopped under a tree where a leopard was lolling in the branches. It was a brilliant sighting.

I had taken my sunhat off and hooked it over my knee, but it fell to the ground. I asked the driver if I could get down to retrieve it, and he said no, absolutely not.

He then got on the radio and called up another game drive vehicle, which arrived, parking in a wedge with our Landy, so that my hat – I was fond of that hat – was between the two vehicles.

The other driver then quickly got down and scooped it up.

I was struck by how seriously they took this – it would have taken me only seconds to grab it myself. But no.

I was reminded of that incident reading this insightful memoir of two trackers, one white, one black, their developing relationship and their life in the bush.

Alex van den Heever writes about how animals can be habituated to the presence of humans, and how this becomes important to developing tourism and an awareness of the importance of wildlife.

At one point he and Renias Mhlongo are invited to Chile to help with a project to habituate jaguars to people, in a bid to make the animals less shy and so improve sightings for visitors willing to pay for the opportunity. This is vital in the perennial tug-o-war between wildlife and predator-shooting ranchers who want to protect their sheep and other domestic animals.

Van den Heever, who with Mhlongo began his career at Londolozi in Mpumalanga, describes the habituation process. He says a habituated predator retains all its natural instincts and behaviour, but becomes accustomed to visitors.

Londolozi’s leopards know that people in an open-top, dark green Land Rover pose no threat, nor represent a source of food.

“But habituated predators are very specific and if the three rows of seats are removed from a game drive vehicle, or the vehicle is a different colour, the cat immediately becomes hyper vigilant and untrusting. They won’t allow the unusually shaped or different-coloured Land Rover to approach them and will constantly stare or snarl at the vehicle in warning…”

Once when Van den Heever was travelling with a vet in his white bakkie to dart a sick lion, they battled to get close enough to shoot it.

This is just one of the fascinating vignettes recounted of a career of two astonishingly accomplished men of the bush, who came from very different environments and yet who developed a close relationship and learned to rely implicitly on one another to assure their survival.

Van den Heever was a middle-class English-speaking white boy who grew up on a farm near Plettenberg Bay and became a boarder at Grey College in Port Elizabeth (Gqeberha). Mhlongo, born in a mud hut in the southern Kruger Park.

Mhlongo’s uncle, Engine Mhlongo was, depending on your point of view, a subsistence hunter or “an outright poacher”, who prided himself on his bush skills.

Van den Heever and Mhlongo have worked together for more than 20 years, tracking black bears in California and jaguars in Chile as well as animals in South Africa. They have built a career together, establishing the Tracking Academy which trains trackers who can then work all over the world, as well as writing a best-selling field guide, Tracker Manual. They also do motivational presentations.

Yet melding their different worlds and belief systems wasn’t always easy, and this is a major theme in this book.

Rhino poaching is a continuing problem and Vanden Heever comes up with an example of the world’s different approaches.

Rhino horn has no medicinal value, but many Asian countries place enormous value on its “ability” to cure cancer, reduce the symptoms of chemotherapy and improve the sex drive, convictions that don’t bode well for rhinos.

But then Van den Heever points out all cultures have their own belief systems. “Consider for a moment the First World idea that diamonds symbolise eternal love. Would people from Western cultures stop buying engagement rings for their fiancees if they knew the shocking human rights abuses against children, and the bloodshed associated with selling diamonds in many African countries?… Westerners like to accuse Asians of social and environmental conflict but we are equally complicit.”

One vital element in the development of Van den Heever and Mhlongo’s relationship was Van den Heever learning to speak Shangaan. But it needed more than that.

Van den Heever felt guilty he had had so many advantages growing up. Eventually he formally apologised to Mhlongo “to demonstrate my commitment to an alliance, to a new order, that I sensed would be a long and productive one.”

Later, Mhlongo told Van den Heever: “I felt an ease come into my heart. And I felt much more comfortable with you.”

Van den Heever writes: “Since the day of my apology to Renias, a sense of lightness and freedom entered our relationship. To say it unshackled us from the past may not be entirely accurate, but it had a radically positive impact on both our professional and personal relationship.”

This book contains many tales of bush derringdo, but is also a profound contemplation of what we in South Africa can do to understand each other better.

  • Changing a Leopard’s Spots was one of Exclusive Books’s picks for March.







South Africa is a mengelmoes of people and cultures and beliefs, and these can mitigate against connection.

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