The area in which the Nanga female has set up her territory lends itself fantastically to photographic opportunities that define leopard behaviour.
Textbook photos of her lying in a marula tree or sprawled on a rock in the evening light are of course never gauranteed, but given the abundance of features in and around the Manyelethi riverbed, which flows through the heart of her territory, I would say that the chances of capturing a great shot of her are probably more likely than the chances of a superb photo of another individual.
The sandy riverbed itself is strewn with boulders. Rocky outcrops line its banks, and the riparian vegetation that forms a permanent habitat along the Manyelethi is crammed with the kind of trees which has one thinking, “If I was a leopard…”.
Recently she was found by Londolozi General Manager Chris Kane-Berman on the Southern Cross Koppies, a beautiful rocky area in the south east of her territory, the same place where she kept her last litter of cubs in 2014. She was panting heavily with a full belly, so we suspected she may have stashed a kill somewhere nearby.
The initial view was a tricky one, and didn’t lend itself particularly well to photography, as she was just over the top of a big boulder, partially shielded from view from the Land Rovers below. Patience is the name of the game out in the bush however, and parking in the shade, we settled down to wait and see what would develop.
Our patience was rewarded, and within 30mins or so she had moved to the front of the boulder to drape herself regally over the edge.
With the light fading, we were about to move out when she got up, stretched, and walked over the back of the boulder. Thinking she may be moving back to a kill, we decided to follow, although in that rocky area our chances of sticking with her were slim, even in a hardy Land-Rover.
She reappeared in the long grass next to the boulder, putting her head down into a thick clump of grass and to our surprise, picked it up again with the neck of an impala carcass clamped firmly in her jaws. The kill had been there the whole time and we’d had no idea.
Nighttime was fast approaching, and leopards will often wait until evening to hoist carcasses, knowing that the likelihood of rival predators moving around in the heat of the day are minimal. As the cool of the evening sets in, however, hyenas go on the prowl, and lions head out on the hunt, so to reduce the risk of losing the kill, the leopard will try and hoist it in the boughs of a tree.
Such was the case in our sighting, as the Nanga female headed directly towards the base of a tall marula tree. If one were to design a perfect tree for a leopard to climb, it would be the marula; no thorns, no small branches on the trunk to inhibit a climb, nice horizontal branches to lie on or drape kills over, and in the summer, a canopy of leaves to provide shade and cover.
When a leopard is about to climb a tree, it will generally look up a few times to scout its route. After a glance or two up the trunk, the Nanga female (who probably weighs no more than 40kg, while the carcass she was hoisting was probably around 30kg!) began her scramble up to the main fork, as easy as you and I would climb a small flight of stairs.
Imaging picking up 75% of your bodyweight. Easy for some, but its still a significant weight. Now imagine picking it up in your mouth. Now imagine picking it up in your mouth and climbing a tree with it. This should hopefully give you an idea of how phenomenally strong leopards are.
From the rock to the kill, to the hoist and then the feeding, the Nanga female provided us with some of the quintessential views of a leopard that many visitors to Africa dream of seeing, but few get to witness, reminding us again of just how lucky we are at Londolozi to see what we see.
With the kill securely wedged into the fork of the marula, she fed for a further two days, providing unrivalled leopard viewing for rangers and guests alike.
Written and Photographed by James Tyrrell