There are times in the bush where one feels hugely conflicting emotions. We love to see big cats interact with one other but when these situations occur, they are also vulnerable to injury, something none of us would ever wish on an animal. So this morning when Andrea Campbell radioed in to say that the two Tsalala Breakaway lionesses were heading in the direction of the Nanga female leopard and her cub, James and I found ourselves feeling completely torn between exhilaration and concern.
The Nanga female was resting about ten metres from the base of a Jackalberry Tree, where she had stashed an impala kill. Her cub was playing about twenty metres away from her. We could hear the two lionesses getting closer and closer to the leopard pair from the sound of Andrea’s vehicle following them towards us. Andrea eventually joined our sighting, parking her vehicle adjacent to ours and I turned to look behind us. There stood two lionesses behind a thicket, ears perked up, eyes trained on the female leopard. They were well aware of her but she was fast asleep, none-the-wiser about the imminent threat.
The Nanga female was born to the Nyelethi 4:4 female in 2009 as part of a litter of three.
Every part of me wanted to shout at the leopard to wake up and when listening to the video of the sighting I could actually hear myself anxiously whispering “Wake up, wake up, wake up”, trying to urge the leopard to rouse from her slumber.
Thankfully, as the lionesses rounded the vehicle and got to within about ten metres of her, their rustling footfalls in the grass became alerted her to their presence. She opened her eyes, saw the huge shape of the Tailless lioness only metres from her and immediately bolted for the tree. This is typical behaviour of leopards, as they are incredibly adept climbers and feel safe to climb high into a tree’s boughs where lions are unlikely to follow. Amazingly, the Tailless lioness shot up the tree behind the leopard, although with nothing like her speed and agility. Due to her weight and size and therefore much more limited climbing ability, the lioness wasn’t able to climb as high as the leopard and the Nanga female found safety up in the thinnest branches. The leopard cub had meanwhile shot down towards the Manyalethi River, managing to escape the interaction altogether. The lioness turned her attention to the impala carcass in the fork of the tree and settled down to feed on it. The younger lioness only joined her once she had been unable to find any scraps at the base of the tree.
Eventually the Nanga female crossed from the top of the Jackalberry tree into the adjacent Leadwood and settled down to watch the feeding lions for a while. Once the second lioness had scaled the tree and the two were distracted and intent on feeding, the leopard quietly descended and bounded off. We can only assume that she headed in the direction of her cub and took it to safety.
The younger lioness spent a further thirty minutes or so in the tree, trying to get at the carcass, which the Tailless lioness guarded by growling and snapping at her. When the carcass was finished, they awkwardly descended back to the ground.
Lions pose a very real threat to leopards. In fact, the Xidulu female leopard was recently killed by lions, and I’ve personally seen the Tsalala Pride chase leopards such as the Camp Pan and Marthly males in the past. This particular pride were responsible for killing the Dudley Riverbank 5:5 male, in all likelihood the Tutlwa female and possibly even a few unconfirmed individuals to add to that list too. The Nstevu Pride mauled the 4:4 male and he eventually died as a result of the injuries sustained during the fight. So despite this being an amazing scene to witness, we all breathed a huge sigh of relief when the Nanga female and her cub managed to escape the encounter unscathed.