At Pioneer camp, we were recently joined by the Falloon family for what can only be described as an exceptional four days… By their third afternoon with us, we had seen some great things but all that was missing was the elusive leopard and not for a lack of trying.
Foster Masiya and I had a brief chat before heading out into the field on a very warm summer’s afternoon. Our plan was to see if we could find the Mashaba Female, a leopard we see fairly regularly and who is often seen close to the camps. Foster had a good feeling that she was going to be out and about and from past experience, I know that when a tracker has that feeling, you follow it.
As we headed out for yet another unknown adventure, tracks of a female leopard were called in by my colleague Alfred Mathebula. The tracks were right outside Varty Camp’s entrance and the tracks were on top of all vehicle tracks from during the day, which meant they were fresh and that the leopard might not be too far away.
As we moved into the area to give my colleagues’ assistance, sure enough the two trackers Euce Madonsela and Shadrack Mkhabela found the leopard resting in the shade of a Spikethorn, a mere hundred yards away from where they had seen the first track. A track-and-find like this is always exciting for everyone involved and a pretty exceptional start to any drive.
Once we’d picked up Shadrack and Euce, they directed us to where they’d seen the leopard and sure enough, it was the Mashaba female. Foster had been right.
The Mashaba Female was lying down in a small ditch, resting in the shade. Looking at her we could see that she was hungry. She was in good condition but could do with a decent meal, especially as she is still supporting a youngster of ten months that has an ever-growing appetite.
She soon began moving and we followed her as she marked territory and moved through the clearings east of camp. This area borders the territory of her first daughter, the Nkoveni female. As she emerged from a thicket, she noticed a herd of impala moving into the clearing. She watched them for a while but after weighing up the options she decided to rather move on in search of a better opportunity. When predators such as the cats hunt it requires patience; waiting for all the elements to be in their favour, but if things aren’t not quite right they may abandon the hunt so as to avoid unnecessary attention and wasted energy.
The Mashaba female started moving towards the Sand River, which I have seen her do many times before. The reason she probably did this is because the river offers pockets of thick vegetation and an abundance of prey. This combined with the fading light would likely offer better hunting opportunities. As she moved into a prominent clearing she stopped in her tracks and started flicking her tail, which is a sign of excitement and that she may have spotted a potential meal. We decided to park our vehicle at a distance as we noticed a number of animals in the open; wildebeest, nyala, impala and a herd of waterbuck.
An area like this is not easy to hunt in for a leopard, as there is not much vegetation to hide behind. This means there is a very good chance that any of the animals in the clearing could spot her, sound an alarm and thereby alert any other animals in the vicinity.
The leopard took her time assessing her options and in doing so noticed that there was a very young waterbuck in the herd. Even though she had selected her target she was still about sixty yards away and there was no cover between her and the calf. As we sat watching her it was clear that she was becoming more and more focused on this young waterbuck; her body posture changed, she stayed close to the ground and began to stalk, her belly almost rubbing the ground as she crept closer. The mother and calf strayed slightly from the herd, creating the opportunity as their potential view of the leopard was blocked by a large marula tree. This was the opportunity the Mashaba female had been waiting for and accelerating all the time, she ran straight towards the waterbuck, using the tree as best she could.
The leopard was only a couple of yards away when the female waterbuck realised the danger but it was too late! The female waterbuck alarmed and ran but the youngster ran in the opposite direction and straight into a small thicket where the Mashaba female was able to catch up and finally grab the young waterbuck. We could hear the calf’s distress call and knew the leopard had been successful. Once the dust settled, we could see that she had the youngster firmly by the throat and there was nothing the female waterbuck could do.
One cannot help but feel for the mother waterbuck as she bounced around in circles alarming at the leopard and watched her calf being dragged off into the thicket. This is nature however, and as tough as it can be to witness such a scene, it is reality and we realise that we were privileged to be a part of it. We left the sighting with very mixed feelings; sadness for the waterbuck but relief for the leopard who is still supporting a hungry and very much dependent cub.
Carl Falloon was quick enough to capture a video of the entire episode. Watch the footage below.
Filmed by Carl Falloon