A few days ago ranger Greg Pingo and tracker Andrea Sithole were following a large herd of buffalo in the grasslands of southern Londolozi when they noticed movement in the bushes a short distance away. Upon investigation they found the Makhotini male leopard, staring intently in the direction of the herd. Although buffalo do not usually feature on the diet of leopards, the Makhotini male had noticed a buffalo cow mid-birth, and saw a possible opportunity for an easy meal.
Now, this leopard has been found twice in the last month or so with a buffalo calf hoisted in a tree. Neither kills were witnessed, both were found the day after. The first kill that was found was hoisted in a Weeping Boer-bean tree, with the deep hoof-prints of enraged buffalo all around it. The herd had obviously tried to reclaim the calf, but to no avail. Buffalo calfs weigh around 40-50 kg at birth, and a newborn would present no challenge for a large leopard like the Makhotini male to hoist immediately. A quick dart in during the night, asphyxiate the calf to prevent it giving off a distress cry, and then up the nearest tree before the herd are aware of what is going on.
It is clearly a strategy the leopard has adapted. Leopards are the most successful of all the big cats and occur in the widest habitat range owing to their adaptability. The Makhotini male I am sure has been forced to become a buffalo hunter because of a lack of other prey in the area and due to the scarcity of impala that roam within his territory.
Back to the day in question…
After hearing of what Greg and Andrea had seen in the morning, we decided to head into the area that afternoon to try and find the buffalo and hopefully the leopard tailing along after them, if not already on a kill.
Luck was with us. After approaching the herd along a relatively obscure track, a sudden commotion 10 metres from the front of our Land Rover among some of the lead bulls drew our attention – there was the Makhotini male – bursting from cover as the bulls sniffed him out and charged in to chase him off. He scampered down into the shallow stream-bed that marked the headwaters of the Tugwaan drainage and lay behind a wild date palm while the buffalo returned to feeding peacefully in the afternoon heat.
What struck me was the dramatic contrast between the way the buffalo had reacted to the presence of a leopard and what they would have done had they encountered a pride of lions. After the leopard had scuttled to safety, the buffalo soon forgot he had ever been there, whereas with lions they would almost certainly have retained their vigilance, and the rest of the herd would most likely have become alerted. As it was, apart from a couple of bulls and one or two cows who continued to sniff the air for a few minutes more, there would have been no evidence that a big male leopard was lying in the grass no more than 50 m away.
The pathfinders of the herd suddenly decided to head for water, and the buffalo arranged themselves in a long line moving northwards in the direction of Winnis’ Wallows. The leopard chose this moment to come out of hiding, and began sniffing around the area in which the herd had been grazing, hoping to maybe come across a stillborn calf or possibly even some afterbirth.
He found nothing, and struck out on the path the herd had left behind them, as the buffalo at the rear were just disappearing over the hill.
Tracker Mike Sithole suddenly stiffened in the seat next to me as he caught sight of a buffalo cow in the distance. She was a fair way behind the herd and looking back in our direction, calling. The leopard heard her at the same time and began trotting towards her, convinced, as Mike was, that she had a calf there and was urging it to catch up.
Sure enough, as the leopard stopped and began stalking slowly forward, we caught sight of a small dark brown shape moving in the grass. From that moment on, the result was inevitable. The leopard moved hesitantly forward and then sprang in the last few metres, gripping the calf at the back of the neck and suffocating it. Its mournful distress cries caused its mother to move in, but seeing how hopeless the situation was, she moved off after a few minutes to join the rest of the herd.
The leopard began dragging the carcass of the calf back towards the drainage line. Hoping to see him hoist it, we followed him, but were surprised to see him drag it past a good few Marula trees that would have been perfect for him to stash a kill in but which he ignored.
He eventually lay next to a Jackalberry tree and began to feed. As night was upon us and we didn’t want to attract attention to his un-hoisted kill with our spotlights, we left him to it. I will never know the answer, but I actually have a suspicion that he was heading for the same Weeping Boer-bean tree he had hoisted his first buffalo calf kill in, a few weeks before (the tree was about 200 m further along on his line of his march). I say I will never know because his failure to hoist his kill before darkness cost him, as in the morning tracks of hyenas in the area and tracks of the leopard leading away from the scene told us of how he had been robbed during the night.
Richard Ferrier and Lucky Shabangu picked up the trail, and lo and behold, the leopard was found a few hours later lying close to the buffalo herd again, waiting for another opportunity.
I am pretty confident that we will be seeing this leopard taking chances with the buffalo more and more regularly.
Seeing a leopard catch and kill a buffalo, even if only a calf, was definitely a first for me!
Written, Filmed and Photographed by James Tyrrell