Changing A Leopard’s Spots

World-renowned wildlife trackers Alex van den Heever and Renias Mhlongo have spent more than two decades working together, tracking leopards and lions at Londolozi, jaguars in South America and grizzly bears in the United States.

In Changing a Leopard’s Spots, Alex shares stories from his life with Renias, including the successes, failures, dramas, laughter, disappointments and highlights. As they experience numerous adventures, Alex and Renias learn to trust and rely on one another – both in order to stay alive, in a literal sense because of the sometimes dangerous environments in which they work, but also to develop a deep and meaningful relationship.

Changing A Leopard's Spots Book

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Radio 702: Interview with Azania Mosaka

Alex & Renias

Azania Mosaka 702

Our master class is all about transporting you into a different world, the world of wildlife tracking, of game rangers and of course the lessons that come with this and the relationships that are forged. And it is through the expert view and incredible life stories of two South Africans; Alex van den Heever and Renias Mhlongo. They have spent more than two decades working together tracking leopards, rhinos, lions and jaguars, and a whole host of other animals are at Londolozi game reserve and other game reserves. And then jaguars in places like South America. A grizzly bear in the United States. It’s just been an unbelievable adventure that they have had over many years of working together. The book is called Changing a Leopard’s Spots. I think it explains what you can expect in the book; a beautiful title that speaks to what you will find in this book—changing a Leopard’s Spots – The Adventures of Two Wildlife Trackers. Alex tells the stories of not only his life, but he has written it with Renias. And it includes the successes, failures and there is lots of drama. There is also a lot of laughter; there are moments of deep disappointment and then moments that can simply be described as spiritual experiences. They have had great adventures working together where they have had to learn to trust and rely on one another in order to stay alive – the book opens in a powerful fashion which speaks to staying alive and needing each other, in a literal sense and of course in a metaphorical sense because of the dangerous environment in which they work. In order to develop a deep and meaningful relationship they challenge each other, they learn from each other, and they break down a lot of the social, cultural, racial and personal boundaries and obstacles that often divide South Africans. It is a true South African story. So, in the process, they have formed this unbreakable bond. We will delve into the world of wildlife tracking but also explore some of the stories that they share. Let us start with Alex van den Heever. He is the general manager of Tracker Academy and also the author of Changing Leopard’s Spots. ALEX, A JOB WELL DONE.

If it wasn’t for Covid 19 the two of you would have been in the studio which I was so looking forward to because this book is absolutely incredible. Congratulations!

Alex van den Heever

Thank you very much. Yes, we would have indeed been with you. Fortunately, we can do this by phone so thank you for having us on your show.

Azania Mosaka 702

Thank you, Alex. There’s so much to speak about. And then Renias Mhlongo, he is a tracker, a guide and the co-author of the book – a master tracker as he’s been described in the book. Tata Renias, Good afternoon. Where are we speaking to you from this afternoon? 

Renias Mhlongo

Good afternoon. You are talking to me from Dixie village in Mpumalanga.

Azania Mosaka 702

Yes, you had to travel from the bush to get to an urban centre so that we could have a strong cell connection.

Renias Mhlongo

Yes. I am based here in the bush near Bushbuckridge.

Azania Mosaka 702

I just love the chemistry between the two of you, Alex and Renias. That’s what we will be exploring. The book opens with an incredible story. I’m hoping that you’ll tease our listeners by sharing some of the details your afternoon game drive which starts with the great lesson. And this is when you were really young? Alex, you were as a young ranger. You were then assigned to the most experienced tracker at Londolozi, the masterful Renias Mhlongo. So just take me to that moment that time in your life when you were young and in that Land Rover transporting those Canadian tourists who were determined to see a leopard, and this was their last day to do that, yes?

Alex van den Heever

It’s quite daunting when you arrive as a brand new guide or game ranger. In those days we used to call it a Game Ranger, but the modern term is a “Guide”. And when you arrive there you are assigned to somebody to work with. In my case it was with Renias and he was certainly one of the most experienced people there. Thankfully I had the opportunity to work with him because I don’t think I would have lived through that early experience had I been with somebody who was less experienced and less competent. Londolozi is known for its world-class leopard viewing, not only in South Africa but Africa wid,e and the people who come there who want to see leopards. They often want to see a specific leopard. They read about the personalities of the individual leopards that are territorial in the area, those regularly seen on Londolozi. People get into the lives of these animals, and this particular group of guests were very keen to see a leopard. Renias and I had just started started working together and there was no chemistry, there was no working relationship in the beginning. We’d only known each other for just a few weeks. I had heard Renias was a great tracker. I was to become his 13th ranger that he was about to start working with. And you know, a lot of the young rangers come and go, and the trackers remain behind and slowly accumulate years of experience. The bright and shiny new guides are inexperienced; they work for a while and then leave the reserve again. I assume that’s how Renias saw me, and in this particular instance, we had been trying to find a leopard for three days. These guests were getting very anxious that they were possibly going to leave Londolozi without seeing one. On the very last game drive Renias picked up a very faint track of a leopard, and not only did he know it was a leopard track, but he was also able to determine from the pugmark which female leopard it was. And it just so happened that she was the most cranky and aggressive of all the leopards that we used to see at Londolozi only in those days. But we had no choice; we had to track and try to find it.

So we followed her tracks. We had to follow with pace because we didn’t have much time on our hands as the guests were flying out a few hours later back to Canada. We didn’t have time. We tracked at a real pace. The next thing I know a leopard was charging out of the bushes me! I tried to get out of its way, and I tripped and fell onto my back, and my rifle was smashed out of my reach. The animal came at me and literally ended up with one paw on the log that I had just tripped over. It was right over me. Long story short, Renias, who was right next to me standing to my left, talked me out of it safely. That was certainly a momentous occasion in the early development of our relationship. For the first time, I realised that Renias was somebody that I could trust. I don’t know what he thought of me, though!

Azania Mosaka 702

Baba Renias, do you remember what you thought of the young Alex at the time? Do you remember what you thought of him when he first arrived?

Renias Mhlongo

Oh yes, I remember I did. Thank you. I remember him as a young man, always very keen to learn about my culture and my part of the job which was tracking. I appreciated this very much as it was the first time a Ranger had shown any real interest in my side. But I had a lot of work to do to teach him! A lot. Alex opened his heart to me. Although we’ve had our difficult times, it has strengthened our relationship as a whole. We have experienced a lot together in twenty years, and it has been very good for both of us. I taught him to speak Shangaan, and he helped me with my English, so we worked very well together. We have mentored each other. We have also travelled all over the world together, to places like England, Australia, America, and in fact, Yellowstone National Park is my favourite reserve outside of Africa. We took people tracking bears together where we learnt many lessons, which Alex has written about in the book.

Azania Mosaka 702

Hopefully, we’re going to explore some of the adventures that you’ve had together because you have so many. Lots of humour and lots of character-building experiences in your lives together. There’s also an incredible vulnerability in this book of from Alex – he writes it with Renias – they’re collaborating. Alex talks about how his views of this country have changed, his understanding of the lives of the people in this country have shifted fundamentally as a result of this working relationship with Renias. It’s an amazing book! And at the end they give a tracking lesson which I really enjoyed. There’s a lot of further reading that they refer you to, the five elements of tracking, for example. If you know anyone, a young person in your life perhaps, who is curious this is about the natural world – this is the book to give them because they’ll get an insight about tracking on the one hand but also get a great sense of what that life entails.

Alex, in the book, you share your upbringing, the ups and downs of being a young person growing up in this country and your family history. You and Renias clearly come from very different backgrounds! But you did find a way to come together and draw a lot of lessons from one another. When it comes to tracking you obviously learnt a lot from Renias. What can you tell us about this process? Because there’s one chapter, I read where you actually ended up visiting the very tree under which Renias was born. Renias knew a life of herding cattle and protecting them from lions and so on; you’ve had a great opportunity to watch him work, yes?

Alex van den Heever

Over time I realised that Renias was an extraordinary person not only as a wildlife tracker but as a human being. I was lucky that Renias is a very forgiving person, and I think Renias was lucky that I was genuinely keen to engage with him. And we also share a common sense of humour, we share a love of nature, and we both love to track animals. The feeling one gets, irrespective of the animal you’re following is something that is very special to us. Tracking is a skill. Like people get deep into playing golf or cricket or whatever it might be, tracking exercises the mind and the body, both equally. I just loved seeing Renias at work, and the more time I spent with him, the more he astounded me with the things he could do. When the chips were down, he somehow had a plan to find an animal. I talk about various examples of this in the book. One of which, one morning another guide had found a leopard which had killed a bushbuck. And that evening we went to go and find it with our guests as they hadn’t seen a leopard yet. I remember it being very hot. We knew exactly where the leopard was feeding on its kill, but as we got near Renias stopped me and said he wanted to look along the road. He said he had a feeling that the leopard had left its kill and gone to drink. The guests were very excited to see the animal. As far as I was concerned, we had a solid report. But Renias wanted to check along the road to make sure the leopard had not moved, before venturing into the bush where it had its kill. We got off the vehicle and walked down the road but found nothing. I said to him that we should go back and get the guests in the vehicle and drive to where the kill had been sighted. Renias halfheartedly followed me back onto the vehicle. We started driving into the bush. Suddenly, from behind us a tree squirrel started to make an alarm call. Renias shot around and said the leopard was behind us! He told me to listen to the tree squirrel and to turn the vehicle around, which I did. Now we were driving in the opposite direction to the guide’s report from the morning. He told me to drive towards a big Jackalberry tree up ahead. 

About halfway along to the big tree, he said to me go, go, go. You go faster, to which I asked why. He said listen to the squirrel; it’s seen the leopard. Renias had interpreted the change in the cadence and tone of the squirrel’s alarm call to interpret the leopard was initially lying down and had now had gotten up and was moving. We arrived at the big tree and there was no leopard. I remember a guest saying to me, “Hey Alex, are we looking for tree squirrels or leopards,” and as I was about to answer Renias spotted the leopard walking through the woodlands just up ahead of us. There so many examples like that.

I remember another time we were drinking coffee with our guest and he casually asked the guests if they wanted to see a rock python. And they, of course, said they would love to see a python. He walked with his coffee mug about 20 meters into the bushes and started scouting around under a bush, and then called the guests to come see the snake. He’d heard the birds alarming, and he’d noticed the subtle position of the birds calling lower in the bush – and all this came together for him to interpret that it wasn’t just any snake, it was a slow-moving python. Now you can argue that he got lucky there. But I can tell you having worked with him for 25 years he seems to get lucky more often than not!

Azania Mosaka 702

I loved all your stories. Alex, I mean it’s a highly entertaining book. I think what’s also important; this skill, this art that has been honed from childhood that Renias has, that Alex has also built over the years since working in collaboration over these past two decades. What is it? What is this energetic connection he writes about in the book? What are they experiencing in the process of tracking an animal? 

Let’s go back to Renias Mhlongo, tracker and guide and co-author of a new book that’s just going to enthral everyone called Changing a Leopard’s Spots. I really do I want to understand what is going on when you are in the process when you are busy tracking an animal? What are you relying on? 

Renias Mhlongo

Yes I have been lucky to be doing this for many years. I learnt from my father. I had to look after his cows; he had 60 of them! I had to learn each one’s tracks and if I lost a cow it was my responsibility to track and find it otherwise I was not allowed to come home that night. That’s how I grew up. At the time I thought my father didn’t love me but now I can see how much his strict lessons have prepared me for life. At Londolozi I was asked to go find leopards for the guests, and I would take a little handheld radio, go into the bush and track until I would find it. This is where a lot of my tracking practice came from. And its also where I learnt patience, which is very important when tracking animals.

Azania Mosaka 702

Yes. In fact, it’s something that Alex wrote in the book that he’s always respected your Zen-like attitude and the ease with which you are able to find mindful awareness in the present moment, even in stressful situations. And so this is certainly a point that Alex reflects very well in the book, writing about how calm and measured you are. But tracking leopards is very challenging obviously, and it clearly requires a lot of mental focus. 

Alex, let me come back to you on that. How challenging is tracking and how difficult is it?

Alex van den Heever

You obviously have to have decent eyesight, an able body, a good memory and an ability to interpret evidence. It’s a bit like being a forensic investigator and it pulls on one’s ability to see and recognise patterns in the landscape. It’s one thing to see a leopard’s track in the sand but it’s an entirely different matter to follow that track over varying types of substrate. If the animal moves over stony ground or into grass, you are effectively looking for different types of evidence. So, it’s a case of needing to know what to look for. A leopard track looks different depending on whether it is in mud or on hard ground or through grass. Each different substrate throws up different forms of evidence. There’s no doubt that local knowledge has a massive role to play too. I have seen master trackers look pretty ordinary when taken out of their home patch and made to track in a completely different environment. Renias and I went to the United States where we took a group of students tracking grizzly bears. We found it extraordinarily difficult even though the principles of tracking are the same. What we didn’t know is that a grizzly bear actually treads very lightly, and there are all kinds of little subtleties and changes of behaviour that complicate the tracking effort. For example, if a leopard comes across a fallen tree it simply walks over that fallen tree, whereas a bear gets onto the fallen tree, turns and walks perpendicular along the log looking for beetle grubs or whatever it can find in the rotting wood. And so, you would need to know that kind of behaviour is common for bears to be able to anticipate it’s movements. 

Renias had the ability to adapt pretty quickly in a reasonably short space of time. He’d be saying to me that he can see the bears are walking along the logs not over them. He’d be saying he’d noticed that the bears were feeding on two specific types of berry bushes. 

There was a moment in America where I felt that we must give it up and give these people their money back! I felt like a complete charlatan. At one point we were completely failing in our efforts to teach the Americans to track! Renias saved that trip for us. Tracking is technical; it requires both mental and physical ability. It’s just a wonderfully creative skill.

I think the longest we’ve followed a trail was a rhino cow with an injured calf that we had to find for medical purposes, to help the vet treat it. We followed the whole day until the sunset, and then the next morning we got up and we followed again until we found the animal in the late afternoon of the second day. So that was at least 16 hours of hard tracking. It’s very tiring and when you go to sleep and you close your eyes and you see tracks in your head! The mind gets stimulated like when one writes a long complex exam – one is mentally stimulated after an intensive day like that.

Azania Mosaka 702

I mean this book paints so many incredible pictures; that time when you went tracking Pumas in Patagonia in Chile, your trips to the US and Brazil, and so many others. Tracking has afforded you so many adventures, including the sort of adventures that didn’t have anything to do with tracking, like just you two guys having fun in London! I thought the London story was one of the most refreshing stories. But let’s talk about relationships, building relationships. You talk about trust, which had to be forged early in your collaboration. What was the trust founded on over the past two decades? What can you tell us about building trust between individuals?

Alex van den Heever

Well that’s an interesting question and I’ve read a lot about trust and I know there are lots of theories about trust. I can only talk from my own experience in answering your question. Trust is usually formed in difficult times, when the chips are down, and you don’t expect much from the other. I got that in the first dangerous leopard incident that we had together. We’ve tried to be honest with each other, transparent with each other. The trust between us deepened when we acknowledged our respective biases and prejudice thoughts. And to acknowledge that with the person you’re dealing with, and to say, I do have some level of bias here. We all look at life through a specific lens, a cultural lens to which we are born. It is totally natural that people see the world differently. Renias and I couldn’t have been more different in the early stages of our relationship. And I think we all need the courage to say “I see things differently to you” but it requires that level of boldness. When you’re able to get that honest and then you take that honesty into a difficult time – to me that’s when trust starts to build.

Azania Mosaka 702

There are just so many profound moments in the book. I mean, there’s a time when Renias invites Alex to his village called Dixie, which is Renias’s home village. And Alex, you’re quite honest about postponing the answer and deflecting whenever Renias asked you to come to his home. The way you end that chapter about visiting Dixie, the chapter is called Welcome to Dixie, is an eye-opener as you say, because as a privileged young white man you had a shallow sense of how the bulk of South Africans live. And this is a profound moment for you not just in how you were treated but you what you witnessed there. And you asked Renias at the end about why he invited you to Dixie. And the response was that at the end of the day you must be prepared to risk something if you want to deepen your relationship with the person from a culture different to yours.

Renias, why did you have this courage when you made this invitation and when you talk about this taking of the risk? 

Renias Mhlongo

To me it was important, if we were to establish a relationship, that Alex visits my house to see what my culture is like. How my culture works, how we cook, how we eat, how we collect water – so that he knows more deeply about the Shangaan people. Although I doubted initially, I pushed for Alex to come to Dixie and it was the best thing we’ve ever done together. Eventually, I taught Alex to speak Shangaan and he taught me English. And I must say my heart was opened to Alex from that time onwards. Dixie set us on a new path where I could see Alex was serious about forming a friendship with me outside of work life.

Azania Mosaka 702

It’s almost time for us to wrap up this conversation. And I’ve been in conversation with the authors of Changing a Leopard’s Spots, really a rich book. Absolutely rich, as we conclude with what they’re currently doing. Alex, you guys have been giving motivational talks on diversity and inclusion a long time before it became as topical and as urgent as it is now. You’ve travelled all over the world but you’ve also established a business that is keeping the art of tracking alive and well. Please tell me more about the Tracker Academy, and of course the inspirational talks that you give to corporates. I believe there’s also an interactive documentary that is coming, that takes people into the world of wildlife tracking which aims to help corporates in adapting to the ever-changing world we live in, right?

Alex van den Heever

Yes, we established the Tracker Academy along with the support, guidance and impetus from Gaynor Rupert of Rupert Nature Foundation in 2010. We are a not for profit entity. We train 24 young men from rural communities living mostly adjacent to wildlife areas all throughout southern Africa, in a professional wildlife tracking. It is a full time one year program which is formally accredited by CATHSSETA and endorsed by FGASA. We’ve been going for ten years and we’ve graduated about 170 students of which over 90% of whom are in permanent conservation jobs across the conservation industry. The Tracker Academy’s agenda is to show that the ancient skill of wildlife tracking has relevance and value in modern conservation efforts. We have three camps; in the Kalahari, Sabie Sands and in the Karoo. There are permanent trainers at each campus and it’s a full-time endeavour which is totally donor reliant. 

We continue to do motivational talks and we’ve made use of the powerful metaphor that is wildlife tracking. We recently formed an interactive documentary called Tracking Success which basically extols the virtues of a master tracker for the benefit of business and business leaders. We filmed ourselves tracking lion, leopard and rhino in different scenarios. In the process of tracking animals, there are all kinds of decisions to be made, and each has a consequence. The risk versus the reward has to be weighed up, and this is where the interactivity comes in. The delegates at the conference literally become the trackers. Each time we get to a decision, we hand it over to the audience who is broken up into tracking teams (groups) where they discuss the decision and a decide course of action. We basically immerse people into the boots of a wildlife tracker. We have taken the documentary online to reach a greater audience. We use the metaphor of tracking to assist business leaders in decision making processes and to think creatively and understand risk versus reward. It is a very exciting space. It’s the first of its kind in the world.

Azania Mosaka 702

It is an incredible project and it’s great to hear the different legs that come out of this fantastic book. You’ve been both very generous in sharing parts of your life with us and the lessons that you’ve learnt along the way. They’re ageless and I think they will apply to many different contexts and settings. Congratulations to you both.

The book is called Changing Leopard’s Spots, the adventures of two wildlife trackers. It’s available in bookstores this month – March 2020.