The Mxabene female’s 10 month old cub had been found alone, sitting atop a dry, dusty termite mound. He was exuding a sense of bravado that is so typical of young male leopards. His steely gaze was only interrupted by the flicking of his ears and rustling of his coat. It was to be a significant afternoon for him. In the space of a few hours he would demonstrate his physical prowess and deadly instincts.
He was sniffing around a clump of tall Red grass (Themeda Triandra) when an immature grey duiker, hiding deadly still, caught his eye. His body stiffened for a brief second before he pounced, pinning the duiker is his paws. The little antelope wriggled free, bleating loudly. Not knowing what to do, the leopard pawed softly at his quarry, knocking it down and gently sniffing its face. Before long, however, the flight mechanism of the duiker took over and it hastily made its way behind one of the Land Rovers which was watching the ongoing interaction.
Annoyed at losing his prey the leopard frantically searched for it. He found it again and hoisted the still living duiker up a large Marula (Sclerocarya birrea) tree. Perched hesitantly on a sturdy branch, the leopard and duiker tried to find their composure. The youth of both animals signaled a unique encounter because neither of them had fully developed the instincts and mechanisms to deal with the situation. For the duiker it was the desire to flee for safety and the for the leopard it was the knowledge of how to kill its prey.
Suddenly, movement to the east of the tree gave shape to a female leopard. It was the Mxabene female who, having heard the distress calls of the duiker, came running to see what was going on. Uneasy and excited, the young male turned his attention to the potential conflict with which the little duiker wriggled and fell out of the tree. The female rushed in, sniffed around and then picked up the fallen prey. Quickly realising it was her son up in the tree, she carried it out into the open before calling him down. Maternal leopards, much like other wild cats, will resist killing injured prey in order for their young a chance to hone their killing instincts. Although it is viewed as cruel, this is a hugely important part of learning for young cubs that enables them to fend for themselves and kill their own prey in adult life.
Scrambling down the tree, the young male continued to try and figure out how he should go about killing the duiker whilst his mother patiently sat and watching. As the warm evening settled into darkness, we left the three animals alone, each with our own take, thoughts and feelings about another one of nature’s extraordinary events. How fascinating to witness an event that would be a key experience in a young leopard’s learning. How resilient the resolve of a young duiker to live. How cruel, yet consistent nature is in facilitating the cycle in which it has existed for thousands of years.
We would love to hear your thoughts or comments on this event.
Photographed, Filmed and Written by: Rich Laburn