When a group of people with a combined bush experience of around 80 years is raving about how incredible a sighting was, you know it was pretty spectacular.

We were out on a staff drive, sitting watching three white rhinos in the quiet of a golden Londolozi afternoon while an impala herd grazed peacefully nearby.

Suddenly the stillness was shattered by the alarm calls of the impalas; n indication that they had in all likelihood seen a predator. As we raced towards them to investigate, we saw a number of male impalas chasing each other round and round in circles; an early sign of the rut which will be beginning in the next 6 weeks or so. Realising we may well have been duped as many have before, thinking the exuberant calls of the rams chasing each other were in fact those of genuine alarm, we were prepared to laugh at ourselves and move back to the rhinos.

Approaching the herd, we noticed that although they were looking in the direction of where the males were rutting, a significant portion of them seemed to be formed up in a ring, all facing inwards towards the centre. There simply must be something disturbing them there. Circling around in the Land Rover, we suddenly caught sight of a white belly and sporadically kicking legs behind a grass clump. There was an impala on the ground, but what had brought it down? A python?
It was only as we looked through the binoculars that we saw the golden eyes looking back at us from over the impala’s neck, where the leopard that they belonged to was still applying her suffocating grip.

Tamboti Leopard Vs Hyena Jt

The Tamboti female suffocates the last bit of life out of the impala ewe.

A leopard needs to kill quickly and it needs to kill quietly. Any distress call from its victim could bring in other predators, so the suffocating neck grip is best to strangle a possible distress call and quickly subdue the prey.
In this instance, with the impala herd going ballistic around her, the leopard (who we’d by now identified as the Tamboti female) knew that any need for stealth was long gone; she just had to kill the ewe and get it into cover.

She had the first part done in only a few minutes, but she was far from any decent concealment.
Knowing the territory as well as she does, she realised that the best cover as well as the best trees that would offer any hoisting potential would lie near the Maxabene riverbed, a scant 150m away. Getting the kill – which probably weighed in excess of 50kg -to the tree-line would be no mean feat, and the leopard had to stop a number of times to catch her breath during the drag, scanning anxiously each time in case any rival predators were moving in. The impala herd were still alarming furiously at her, so she didn’t dawdle, but kept moving doggedly towards the long grass and undergrowth near the riverbed.

Tamboti Leopard Vs Hyena Jt 2

With the impala now dead, or at least subdued, it was time to get the carcass into cover.

Tamboti Leopard Vs Hyena Jt 4

There have been numerous instances of impalas or other prey species that have just been rendered temporarily unconscious by a predator’s asphyxiation attempt, and have gotten up and run away if the predator happens to let go its grip or lose its focus. Being an experienced leopard, the Tamboti female didn’t release her death grip for quite a long time, even when she paused to catch her breath, and in so doing made sure that when she finally did drop the neck to breathe a bit more easily, the impala was well and truly dead.

Tamboti Leopard Vs Hyena Jt 6

One can see just how exposed she was during the first part of the drag. Any rival predators moving in would have spotted her almost immediately.

Tamboti Impala 2

A last look back towards where the impala herd was alarming at her, before disappearing into the thicket line. Photograph by David Dampier

Tamboti Leopard Vs Hyena Jt 7

Impalas (and leopards) have a reflective membrane known as the tapetum lucidum at the back of their eyes. It reflects light back through the cornea, allowing them twice the chance at detecting it and thereby bettering their night vision. In this photo, the impala’s eye just happened to be at an angle at which the sun’s light was reflecting off this membrane straight towards our cameras, which is why it appears white. Ranger Paul Danckwerts looks on.

She was moving through a section without any large Jackalberry or Tamboti trees, common species for leopards to hoist their kills in, but a number of decent-sized russet bushwillows looked suitable for her. Just as she approached the base of one of the larger ones, movement off to the side caught our attention, and looking towards it we saw the unmistakeable form of a hyena rushing towards where the impala herd, having lost sight of the leopard, were giving their last fews alarm barks.

The Tamboti female, meanwhile, hadn’t seen the hyena, and even if she had, the kill would have been pretty heavy for her to try and hoist immediately. Instead, she settled down to feed in some long grass, ensuring that she got at least some benefit from the kill, and if something did come along, the carcass would be lighter and slightly easier to take up a tree.

With the wind swirling, the hyena had missed the leopard on its first pass, and had disappeared. We knew it would be back however, and the whole vehicle kept anxiously looking round, feeling sure that the unsuspecting leopard was about to lose her kill. Eventually the hyena reappeared behind us, and with the carcass now having been opened and the scent of blood fresh on the breeze, the result was a foregone conclusion.

Tamboti Leopard Vs Hyena Jt 10

Finally catching sight of the Tamboti female and the carcass after searching for over 20 minutes, the hyena puts its head down and rushes in.

Hyena Chase Tamboti Leopard Jt

A sequence showing the actual moment of the leopard getting robbed, as the hyena runs in from the left.

Tamboti Leopard Vs Hyena 2j T 2

Although an adult female leopard would likely take well over 48 hours to finish a fully grown impala ewe, an adult hyena like this one could devour half the carcass in less than 30 mins.

When a leopard gets robbed by a hyena, it will more often than not remain close by – aware that the hyena is only interested in feeding – in the hope of maybe stealing some small part of the kill back. The Tamboti female followed the playbook to the letter, quietly grooming herself within 10 metres of where the hyena was wolfing down great chunks of impala.
Eating frantically, crunching through bones as if they were candy, the hyena was constantly turning his head, also anxious of marauding rivals. After feeding for 10 minutes or so, he suddenly snapped his head round, froze to listen intently, and then took off running, abandoning the carcass. Having seen the speed at which he fled, we all expected a pride of lions to come tearing out of the bushes.

But nothing happened.

What had spooked the hyena we’ll never know, but although she was probably as confused as we were by this unexpected turn of events, the Tamboti female nevertheless saw the opportunity that had just been gifted to her and quickly dashed in to grab the impala, of which still about 80% was left. With the hyena having eaten a good chunk of it, the carcass was now both lighter and more manageable, and the leopard made no mistake this time, hoisting it high into a russet bushwillow just as they hyena came running back in to try and recover from its mistake.

Tamboti Leopard Vs Hyena 2j T 3

The leopard leaps for the base of the russet bushwillow with the remains of the kill.

Hyena Blood Face Jt 6

Too high for any hyena to reach, the leopard still had a bit of difficulty wedging the kill into position. The two back legs that the hyena had removed from the carcass would have been used as convenient counterbalances by the leopard to fix it in the fork of a tree, but with a slightly different carcass shape than she was used to handling, she struggled at first to place it securely.

Whilst we try not to take sides in such an encounter, we were all pretty vocally and unashamedly rooting for the leopard. Knowing how difficult it must have been for her to remain undetected for so long, taking the impala down and then dragging it all that way, we felt it only fair that she ended up with the bulk of the kill, even though the hyena was simply fulfilling its role as the opportunistic predator and scavenger it’s meant to be.

Realising the leopard would probably want to fetch her cub to the carcass at some point during the evening, and having seen how quickly things could swing back and forth, we decided to leave her be as darkness approached, satisifed that at least for now in our minds, it was a happy ending.

Filed under Leopards Wildlife

About the Author

James Tyrrell

Photographic Guide/Media Team

James had hardly touched a camera when he came to Londolozi, but his writing skills were well developed, and he was quickly snapped up by the Londolozi blog team as a result. An environment rich in photographers helped him develop the photographic skills ...

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on Hyena Steals Kill From Leopard. Leopard Steals it Back.

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Marinda Drake

Wow! Incredible experience. A lovely story with a happy ending.

Phil Schultz

Well that sounded like a unique sighting! Out of curiosity, was wondering when the rangers typically find the time to go out together on game drives. Curious if it occurs mainly on a staff member’s off day or if perhaps it’s s group of semi on-duty rangers that head out as spotters? Im assuming you guys are out there during the same morning and afternoon hours as everybody else

James Tyrrell

Hi Phil, good question.
Because the lodge is so busy, there isn’t actually that much opportunity to go out as a group.
This instance was actually an assessment drive; when new rangers are coming to the end of their training, a group of senior management and/or experienced rangers will act as the ‘guests’, and the trainee ranger has to conduct a game drive to the Londolozi standard, demonstrating his/her bush knowledge and game drive technique. Usually it’s a whole series of drives over a few weeks with feedback sessions after each one and refinements made by the prospective ranger.
Funnily enough, the quality of the sighting has little or no bearing on the performance appraisal by the senior staff. Whatever the sighting is, be it sleeping lions to wild dogs on the hunt, it just has to be handled/managed effectively by the trainee to get the most out of it.
Having said that, the drive we were on on this particular afternoon resulted in a Pass!

Janie Hansen

I like the fact that you mentioned Paul D. Hi Paul! Do the new rangers take turns driving? Do you take a tracker as well. Life and death drama, coupled with the natural order of the bush. In the video I was shocked to see how quickly the leopard relinquished her kill as soon as the hyena came onto the scene. And how much a hyena can eat in 10 minutes. Astounding. Thanks for the wonderful blog entry!!

Callum Evans

That has to be the sighting of a lifetime!!!!!! Seeing a leopard kill is just incredible, to see a takeover is even better, but then to see the leopard get its kill back is almost unheard of!! You guys always seem to have the most incredible luck!!

Callum Evans

See, now this is why I want to go to Londolozi!!

Rich Laburn

Insane sighting!

Denise Vouri

Leopard 1
Hyena 1
Leopard 1 and this time for keeps.

What a fabulous sighting and your descriptions are perfect. Glad the trainee received a pass grade!!

Darlene Knott

Wow, I would have loved to have been there for that! I also would root for the leopard, James. She worked so hard! But hyenas are smart animals and use their brains and brawn well. Wonderful story and photos. Thanks for sharing!

Michael & Terri Klauber

James, It was surprising that there were not more hyenas nearby and we’re sure the hyena would have made some noise during the leopard encounter! Is it rare to have just one hyena involved? Aren’t there usually groups of them together?

James Tyrrell

Hi Michael and Terri,
in the Sabi Sands the hyenas generally forage alone, as it’s mainly leopards they are competing with.
A second one did arrive on the scene shortly after the leopard hoisted but by then it was too late.
Take a look at this post that describes the hyena dynamics here in a bit more detail: http://blog.londolozi.com/2017/05/03/why-the-hyenas-are-alone/


Ginger Brucker

Wow! Your wonderful retelling of this sighting had my own heart beating. Incredible. Is it typical that a hyena would be out “hunting” or should I say “scavenging” on their own? My own experience was seeing a pack waiting for two older lions to finish eating a kill.

Ginger Brucker

I see you answered the question I posed in an earlier response!

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