We were looking for Rhino, slowly cruising through the borderland between the grasslands and thicket country, right in the centre of Londolozi. Dan Buys was making his way southwards as well, just to the East of us, when tracker Atti, working with Dan for a few days, spotted a small head sticking up from behind a termite mound. It was the male cheetah and he was keeping low, watching a herd of impala grazing peacefully about 100m away from him.
“Showing interest” is an exciting thing to hear on the radio, and it was these two words that had us quickening our pace on the way to Dan’s position.
All was still as we arrived. The cheetah was lying in the shade, just below the skyline, while the herd of unsuspecting impala slowly wandered in his direction.
For some reason they decided to turn around and head away from the cheetah instead. No alarm was given and I am sure they had no idea that he was there, but be that as it may, the distance between predator and prey suddenly increased.
Impala are like sheep in some respects, in that when one starts moving off, the rest tend to follow. One of the most beautiful sights in the bush is of a herd of impala running and jumping in a follow-the-leader style caper through the scrub, and this is what happened here, as a couple of the antelope began trotting away, with the rest of the herd gathering momentum behind them. With all their eyes and attention suddenly focused on where they were running to, the impala did not look behind them, and this is where the cheetah came from as he launched his attack.
Running straight past our vehicle at what for a cheetah was only a fast canter, he suddenly accelerated up to full speed, disappearing into a thicket in headlong pursuit of the panicked herd, who had seen him by now and were running for their lives. Dust exploded out of the bushes and we lost sight of the cat as he hurtled in just as the frontrunners of the herd burst out into the clearing on the far side.
We raced forward in the Land-Rover, hot on the heels of the impala, but for a minute we had no idea where the cheetah had gone to. The herd had reassembled out in the open and was calming down, yet as we scanned the thicket there was no sign of the cheetah, on a kill or not. We scratched our heads in confusion until a radio message from Dan Buys, who had been driving behind us, came through to say that as we had raced past the thicket line on a parallel course to the cheetah, he had burst out again heading back the way he had come, chasing a young impala that had become isolated from the herd. He had caught it, and so we sped off back to where Dan was, arriving just as the cheetah was starting to regain his breath after what, for a sprinter, had been a very long chase!
It had been an amazing sighting already, but it was only just beginning.
The alarm calls of the impalas had roused another predator from his nearby slumbers, and he was coming to investigate!
The loud hiss of “Leopard!” from the neighbouring vehicle made all eyes swivel, and we immediately saw the enormous form of the Camp Pan male moving in. He slowed down as he approached, making sure exactly what had happened and what other predator or rival he might have to deal with, but we all knew that with him there, there was no chance that the cheetah was going to keep his meal!
It wasn’t long before the leopard had concluded that the threat from the cheetah was effectively zero, and he came running in at a stiff-legged trot to steal the kill.
The cheetah also realised hat there was no way he could put up a fight against the vastly more powerful leopard, and so despite some loud hissing and growling as the Camp Male approached, he turned tail and fled as soon as the leopard got to within 30m of the kill.
Knowing that the same alarm calls that had brought him to the scene might have attracted other predators, the leopard lost no time in dragging the still warm impala to a marula tree and hoisting it high into its boughs.
While the disappointed cheetah approached and then lay down about 50m away in the hope of regaining some small part of the meal, the Camp Pan male fed on into the evening…
Written and photographed by James Tyrrell