It was the most bizarre sight that I had ever seen! I really had to pinch myself to be convinced that what I was seeing was real. Completely unexpected and out of this world, my hands shook as I watched it unfold…
We were inspecting two African Fish Eagles perched high up in the tree along the Sand River. What caught my attention was the sound they were making. I had never heard a Fish Eagle make that sound. I was mentioning to my guests how these iconic birds had a nest nearby in the highest point of a massive Jackalberry. There were currently quite large chicks residing inside, so I thought we would have a look. The sight in my binoculars shocked me! Just when you think that you had seen it all…think again.
A leopard was sitting on the messy platform nest of the African Fish Eagles!
We watched gobsmacked as this large male tore apart and ate both the African Fish Eagle youngsters. The ‘chicks’ were large, but obviously not old enough to fly away. It was sad, yet intriguing to watch as he plucked the birds and fed for about half an hour. The thing which made this already incredible sighting all the more remarkable, was the sheer height of the nest. I estimate it to be close on 20 – 25 meters above the ground. Seeing a leopard sprawled out on a bird nest with the parents flying above was phenomenal. I now knew what the strange sounds from the Fish Eagles meant. It was a mournful, hopeless and desperate cry. They had just lost their offspring to the most unusual of predators.
Leopards are known for their catholic diet and literature reviews by the likes of Hayward et al. (2006) and Bailey (1993) have shown that so far 92 species of prey have been recorded in the leopard’s diet. I stand to be corrected, but I think that what we were watching was quite possibly the first account of the 93rd!
Once he had finished with his meal, he had to begin the very tricky descent. Video footage gives you an idea about just how high he was, and just how risky and complicated this maneuver was.
The question as to why a leopard would risk his life and go to such great heights for a relatively small meal was answered when we got a better look at him. Completely unknown to Londolozi Rangers and Trackers this male was old…and by old I mean ancient. Estimates fall between 17 and 20 years. Upon retunring to camp I sent pictures of this ‘unidentified’ male to various lodges and rangers within the Sabi Sand Game Reserve. It became clear that there have been a handful of sightings of this male throughout the entire Sabi Sands over the last year: first in the north near Gowrie, then to the far east, then into the western sector and finally deep south before arriving out of nowhere in the middle of Londolozi. No-one knows his origins but he was presumably a territorial male from Kruger who’s been ousted and pushed West. He’s obviously nomadic now, moving over a huge area and trying to keep under the radar from other resident males. If he gets caught he will be killed!
Without a territory he is at the stage of having to scrounge around for his meals. This ‘scavenging’ means that he is prepared to go to great lengths and take huge risks to get his next meal. It is wonderful to see an ‘old bullet’ like this and another character for the Leopards of Londolozi. As we lost him heading downstream into the Sand River I felt a tingle of admiration for this ‘unknown’ male. I doubt I will ever see him again; unknowingly he had just provided a handful of fortunate onlookers the most fascinating, unusual, remarkable and memorable of leopard behavior and interactions. Old boy I will never forget you! Thank you
If anyone has seen behaviour like this before, or alternatively has any stories or information on this male, please comment below!
Written, filmed and photographed by Adam Bannister