The plan for the afternoon was to cross the river and go north to try and find any signs of wild dogs. As is the nature of the bush, plans don’t always work out… We were approaching the concrete bridge that crosses the Sand River to the north of our property when Mike Sithole (my very talented tracker) pointed and said he had spotted a leopard just meters off the road behind a guarri bush.
It was the Tutlwa female and she was casually grooming herself and treating us with complete disregard in a way that only a leopard can do. We sat with her for about 15 minutes while she scanned the surroundings for any movements in the bushes and then slowly stretched, walked past our vehicle and disappeared into the bushes. We followed her, getting the occasional glimpse of spots moving behind brown grasses and green bushes. And then suddenly she was running, a flash of rosettes in the bush, kicking up dust behind her in her pursuit of a bushbuck just meters in front of her. A distress call, an explosion of dust, and then silence…we rounded a guarri thicket to see her clamping onto the neck of the young female bushbuck whose legs were kicking desperately and hopelessly to get away. There was no hope. We watched as the life in bushbuck’s eyes slowly faded while the Tutlwa female continued to do what leopards to best.
A few minutes past, and eventually she sat up and looked around for a good spot to drag her kill. She decided to drag the carcass underneath a gardenia tree just meters away, and then began to pluck fur from the bushbuck in order to start feeding. While she was doing this her body language suddenly changed as if she had seen a ghost. We looked behind us only to see the Mashaba young female casually strolling up a game path in the direction of the gardenia. As if this was not unbelievable enough on its own, the 4:4 male was following her to. So within the space of 20 meters we had seen three leopards and a fresh carcass. Tutlwa turned and ran into the bushes which attracted the attention of both of the other leopards who started to follow in the hope of getting a piece of the kill that was left beside our car under the tree.
Keeping up with leopards at the best of times is tough but as the Tutlwa female was trying to avoid the attentions of the other two leopards, she disappeared and we lost sight of all three animals. We searched for them for about five minutes before we saw spots coming out of a drainage line. I pointed the animal out to my guests and said, “ah there is one of our leo… no wait, that is a cheetah!!” A cheetah had now joined this unbelievable afternoon and she was covered in blood and was looking very well fed. I was later to learn that she had a kill about 200 metres away from the scene that we had just witnessed and had just been robbed by hyenas. We followed her for a little while until she settled down in the shade and then returned to where the leopards had been.
The Tutlwa female was back under her tree and was feeding on the bushbuck. We sat and watched for another 10 minutes or so. Once again her body language changed and she sat up and then ran off into the Sand River. The 4:4 male approached the carcass, looked at us, and then also ran off with his stolen prize towards the river. The Mashaba young female followed trotting casually behind him.
Not many words were spoken in this period but the enormity of what we had witnessed could be felt quite clearly in us all and we decided it was time to go and have a drink and watch the sunset. This was an afternoon that I will not forget and will most likely never repeat again…
Written and photographed by Londolozi Ranger Nick Kleer