The wild dogs had been found in the morning, quite by chance, as they stole a kill from a female leopard in the North of the property. They had vanished into the thickest and largest block on Londolozi (a block being an area between roads), and it was going to be a tough job to find them again in the evening.
Luck was with us, as ranger Alfred Mathebula found the pack snoozing in the afternoon heat right on our property’s North-westernmost corner. Time was against us, however, as any direction the dogs decided to run in in a 270 degree arc would take them off Londolozi, where we couldn’t follow, so we had to get there before they decided to move. The beauty of the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Park is its immense size and the lack of fences within the reserve; the animals can roam wherever they want to. We, on the other hand, are limited to our areas of traversing.
Anyways, we raced to where the pack had been found, but by the time we arrived they were already on the move, trotting through the bush just to the west of our boundary. We assumed they would disappear westwards and a brief glimpse of some painted coats and big ears would be all we would have.
How wrong we were.
They re-emerged back onto the boundary road, and with three Londolozi vehicles all holding our collective breaths, we watched them move past their most likely turnoff- a clearing on our neighbouring property. Scarcely believing our luck, we could hardly repress a cheer as these highly endangered carnivores swung eastwards back onto Londolozi, in the direction of Ximpalapala koppie and its surrounding clearings, an area rife with impala.
300m further on and it was all systems go! The dogs caught sight of a large impala herd and took off after them. The impala wasted no time alarm calling as they would if they saw a lion or leopard, but fled at first sight of the pack. Racing to keep up, we rounded a cluster-leaf thicket and nearly collided with a very large elephant bull that was caught up in the general panic of the herd and was running as fast as his legs could carry his 6-ton frame!
Some of the impala headed for the rocks of the koppie, and just as it appeared that they would be caught, an enormous spotted shape rose out of the long grass, and in a massive reversal of fortunes, joined the impala in their headlong flight towards safety. It was the Marthly male leopard. He had probably been stalking the impala all afternoon, but once he was flushed by the dogs he realized they could tear him to pieces if they caught him, and thought it prudent to make tracks for the highest tree on the highest rocks.
Here he stayed whilst some of the pack snapped at his feet and tail. It was incredible to see some of the wild dogs almost face-to-face with this beast of the leopard world as they climbed the rocks to get at him.
Meanwhile, the other members of the pack had met with some success on the hunt and had brought down two impala lambs. Hearing the sounds of squabbling from the other side of the koppie, we left the leopard to wait it out in discomfort and moved futher round the rocks. The pups of the pack (now roughly 6 or 7 months old) were ripping one impala lamb apart, while the adults were feeding on a second a little further away.
They made short work of both carcasses, and soon scampered off to a nearby pan to slake their thirst.
Seeing them preoccupied, the Marthly male tried to sneak away, but timed his run badly, as he was spotted by the Alpha male of the pack. Once more the dogs all rushed in to attack their adversary. Retreating up a rock fig, the leopard had a further uncomfortable 15 minutes wait before the pack headed off into the dusk.
Words cannot adequately describe the emotions at play in a sighting like this. Initially believing we would only have a brief glimpse of the pack, we never in our wildest dreams imagined it would develop into such a spectacular display of nature at its finest.
There was hardly any time to take a camera out and snap some pictures. It hardly matters. I will never forget one of the best and most exciting evenings I will have in the bush. Ever.
Written and Photographed by James Tyrrell