I’ve got a thing about leopards. The spots, the rosettes, the gorgeous, vivid orange and white and black. The gloss of an adult. The unbearably cute fuzz of a blue-eyed cub, still taking its first, exploring steps into the world. The grace, power and poise. The…
Oh, OK. I admit it. I’m in love.
So when, on a recent trip out of Londolozi Varty camp, we came across not one, but two leopards, I was a very happy bunny. Even better, these were two of my favourite leopards. You’re not supposed to play favourites, but… The male was Piva (previously the Selati Young male on the territory where he grew up); the first leopard I ever learned to recognise as an individual. The female was Tamboti Young Female; the first leopard I watched grow up, from a tiny cub to an independent adult (I still have her baby pictures, and bring them out to show at the slightest provocation. Really, it’s as bad as asking a grandmother about her grandkids.)
The situation was a little odd. Whilst both leopards are fully independent, they are both still quite young. The Piva male hasn’t reached his full growth quite yet, although he has been seen mating and is holding a territory. Tamboti Young Female is still in the in-between stage; she’s a bit young to be sexually receptive to a male. So what was going on when we found them in the same area? The fear – as often in the bush – is that there’s about to be violence from which one or both parties will walk away seriously injured. Well, we were half right. There was indeed violence. Only it had an unexpected ending.
So: Tamboti Young Female, on the ground, very alert, sniffing around. Piva male, entering from stage right, obviously aware of Tamboti YF’s presence. Tamboti YF bolts up a handy tree. Camera shutters go into overdrive on several vehicles (good shots of leopards climbing trees are rare.) Piva sniffs around the base of the tree. There is growling from both cats. Cameras swivel frantically, trying to focus on everything at once. Piva backs off; Tamboti YF edges slowly down the tree.
We debate possible next moves – to follow one cat or stay put and see if there’s more. It’s already been an amazing sighting. “He’ll come back for another go. He’s always been a cheeky little so-and-so.” We stay put.
Tamboti YF looks a little more relaxed. Then, suddenly, not relaxed at all. Piva is back. Tamboti YF is up her tree in a flash, but this time it’s not a refuge. Piva follows her up, pausing for a brief (and highly photogenic – thank you, cat) growl from a lower branch. In less than seconds, there’s a whirling ball of fur, claws, teeth and tails, spinning in an exquisitely balanced display of violence. Tamboti YF is smaller and lighter. She loses her grip on a branch and swings. People in three vehicles stare, unable to look away – or for the moment, breathe. Somehow, Tamboti YF swings herself back up, into Piva’s range. There’s an exchange of blows and movements too fast for the eye to follow (the cameras are struggling too – by the sound of it, some motor drives are burning out right here). The growling is continuous and ear filling. Then, in less than a second, it’s over. Tamboti smacks Piva an almighty clout and he – just drops. There is a resounding thud. Everyone in earshot winces. The fall is at least eight metres.
In the frozen pause, Tamboti Young Female has completely regained her balance, if not her relaxation. There’s no way she’s leaving this tree until she’s sure it’s safe to do so. She paces her branch, watching.
From the bushes where Piva landed, there’s a rustling sound. All heads turn towards it, hoping not to see too much injury. Piva stalks out of the brush. Unbelievably, he seems to be completely unhurt. He disappears behind our vehicle, then our tracker Andrea quietly says “He’s lying down behind the vehicle.” (That’s always been a favourite trick from this cat; he seems to think of vehicles as mobile bits of scenery, there for his use.) All is, apparently, returning to normal.
It’s been the most amazing sighting. We take a while to come down from the high, remember, relive, talk it over and check pictures. Then, with sighs of contentment, we move off. In another world – a world where we can understand what’s going on in the heads of leopards – it might be possible to imaging a speech bubble hanging over the Piva male’s head:
“This never happened. We will not speak of it again.”
Written and Photographed by Rebecca Green, Londolozi Guest
Londolozi Video by Mike Karantonis, Private Guide and Owner of Africa Direct.
Second Video filmed by Andrzej and Aleksandra Dybala, Londolozi Guests