It is possibly one of the most important lessons one can learn as a photographer, especially one that is interested or focussed on wildlife. Always be ready for the shot. When you sit in the car park waiting for game drive to leave, ensure your settings are correct, ensure the ISO is right, f-stops are correct and your shutter speed is high enough to capture an image that is sharp and good quality. A lesson I learnt early, many months ago when I began my short journey through photography. But, the most important element in being ready, is having your camera in the first place! On this particular occasion, mine was nowhere to be seen, but thanks to my great guest, Sarah McDermott, we managed to capture the moment, one I will never forget.
An early morning rise to the soft tapping of rain on the thatched roofs, the moist soil, the poncho’s and the mindset that a tough morning lies ahead. Often in the rain we are asked if there is much to see, and the answer is often the same, “In order to catch fish, you need to have your bait in the water!” And so we set out, drenched within 10 minutes of leaving the camp, but jovial and excited for what lay around the bend.
On this occasion, it happened to be the Tamboti female and her, now 8 month old cub. They were moving slowly through a clearing, after having lost a kill to a Hyena during the night, and having barely fed on it, they were out hunting again. Moving slowly through the clearing, through Guarri thickets and in search of some small prize, possibly a new born Impala lamb to get them through the cold morning, we watched as the rain leaked through our poncho’s. The cub of the Tamboti female, slowly becoming the most interesting Leopard on our reserve, and after having spent 3 days alone, she was extremely excited to be with her mother. She ran and played, climbing trees as they crossed the clearing, jumping and stalking and learning. All skills needed for future success. Skills needed for a young Leopard to move toward independence and in order to survive when its Mother eventually leaves it.
As the sighting unfolded and as we watched, we never expected what was about to happen. We sat in the vehicle, speaking openly about how young Leopards spent a lot of time alone, as their Mothers go out and hunt then return to their cub to tell of their bounty, meaning, Leopard cubs are in many forms self taught hunters. Most of the skills they learn will come from the time they are alone. Stalking birds, Butterflies, Dung Beetles, Dwarf Mongoose, etc, etc. Mainly without much success due to lack of patience and experience, however, learning.
It was almost surreal what unfolded on this rainy morning just as we discussed the fragile life of this young Leopard. She took a pose we would associate with an experienced female, like her Mother. She had seen the slightest movement in a Guarri bush near by and like a seasoned professional edged forward. Closer and closer she stalked, without the slightest hint of interest from her Mother. This little 8 month old Leopard cub was stalking an Impala lamb, and she was close. Could this be her first substantial kill? Were we about to witness this young Leopard move from simply a Leopard cub, to a new phase in her life. A silent huntress.
Before I could even speak a word, and explain that she was on the verge of a momentous occasion, she took off. Darting in and out, chasing this little lamb toward a small waterhole, then in full flight she pounced. Like a Serval hunting a Guinea Fowl, the Leopard cub, in mid air, managed to grab hold of the Impala lamb, and together they tumbled into the waterhole, but it was as if she had done this a hundred times. A perfect kill, the perfect hold and instant death for this poor lamb. She had managed to get her jaws around the, still developing, fragile skull of the lamb, in mid air and in meant immediate death. She had done it! In front of us, in the pouring rain, without help from her Mother, and instantly she became the future of our Leopards. To me, this was a sign of, what will become, an extremely successful Leopard with many more unbelievable stories to tell in the future! As she grows and matures, her Mother will leave her, she will be alone, left to fend for herself, a trying time. However, if this has any bearing, she will do just fine.
Certainly one of the most amazing sightings I have ever had the privilege of witnessing. One I will never forget, however, one I did not photograph, (this I will also never forget). But, an amazing sequence of the historic moment was captured by my guest and we wanted to share it with you.
Written by: Mike Sutherland
Photographed by Guest: Sarah McDermott and Jordan Hurwitz