To see a leopard is always an occasion. It is a true privilege and one that should never be taken for granted. To see two leopards, together, is something spectacular. However, seeing four of these magnificent creatures in the same sighting is something I will not forget anytime soon.
There has been much said recently about the Tutlwa female and her two growing cubs. They are seldom seen, however have been providing much excitement and joy when they are viewed. The cubs are slowly beginning to recognise vehicles as their mothers does. Something that approaches, making noise and smelling of humans and diesel, it sits, quietly, within eye shot but not too close, and talks. Talks and talks. Then starts up and leaves without any impact on their lives. Now that the cubs are developing this trust toward vehicles, viewing them has become much easier. In a recent sighting, the Tutlwa female had killed an adult impala ram and had cleverly stashed it in the fork of a marula tree. Once this bounty was safe, she left to collect her cubs and led them to this playground. An amazing viewing opportunity for guests and rangers. New leopard cubs, a kill, and a tree on an enormous clearing. What more could we ask for?
An enigmatic female not often encountered, this leopard lives to the north of the Sand River.
It turned out to be two incredible days of viewing the trio. Up and down the tree, feeding, nursing, playing and grooming – leopard behaviour at its best. The group also encountered other large predators. The most memorable being a hyena, who picked up on the scent of the now two-day-old carcass and came to investigate. This sent all three leopards scurrying up the tree to safety and the hyena quickly moved off. What we did not except is what happened next.
Much like a hyena, a male leopard is ever the opportunist. They seize an opportunity whenever it presents itself. Today was no different. The Marthly male, father to the two cubs in question, happened to be taking a late morning stroll on the exact crest where Tutlwa and her cubs had their meal. He was on a territorial mission and was in search of a place to settle and wait out the heat in the shade. It was in that moment that things changed. With his nose turned up to the air he picked up the faintest scent. With this he turned, and like a heat seeking missile, managed to pick up the scent of the kill from at least a kilometre away. The male’s sense of smell is most likely the most impressive thing I have witnessed and a true test of the powerful senses of these creatures playing out in front of us. He was now on a direct path toward the tree that held the kill. At this stage, the Tutlwa female was lounging in the branches of a shaded marula and her cubs were hidden, quietly in a dense thicket close by.
Myself and my colleague Andrea Campbell anticipated his arrival and positioned ourselves at the marula tree to witness the interaction. The male made a slow cautious approach and spent some time smelling around the base of the tree, no doubt picking up scent of who and what had been there and whether it was safe to continue on his raid or if this was going to be a failed attempt. Just as these thoughts were running through my mind as well as being discussed on the vehicles, the male turned and stared straight up into the tree, his bounty identified and he locked in. The female began to hiss and snarl. She took on an intimidating posture but without any hesitation the Marthly male was up in the tree, heading straight to the kill.
This male moved in from the north of the reserve in 2010, and was instantly recognisable by his unique tuft of fur at the back of his neck.
By this stage, the female understood that she had lost her kill to the male and it was not worth fighting over the scraps that were left. So without hesitation she descended the tree and went in the direction of her cubs, lying a few metres from the thicket in eye shot of the male in the tree. The male tried his best to get a comfortable position to feed whilst in the tree but had no such luck and decided to bring the kill down and feed on the ground. This was what we had been waiting for – the shot of the male descending the tree with his stolen meal. The patience and the forward thinking paid off and we managed to get the shot we were looking for as well as video evidence of the scene.
Below is the sequence of the male climbing down the tree with the impala kill in his jaws.
This was an amazing sighting and to have a group of 12 people to witness and share it with us was even more rewarding.
Have you ever seen anything like this or do you have a great story to share? Post below!
Written and Photographed by: Mike Sutherland
Filmed by: Andrea Campbell