It is that time of year again when the bush is teeming with new life. Baby impalas, wildebeest and warthogs are just about everywhere you look. A warthog sow will give birth in a burrow where the piglets are safely out of sight and protected from the unstable weather conditions. The sow will use her snout to create a shelf in the burrow where the piglets rest. This is crucial because thunderstorms are a common occurrence during summer and the heavy rainfall could either drown the piglets in the burrow or leave them susceptible to illnesses such as pneumonia.
Just over a week ago, myself and my guests decided to spend our drive in search of the Dudley Riverbank 5:5 male who had been seen that morning. Surprisingly he was spotted in the middle of the Piva male and Inyathini males’ territories (in recent times due to the disappearance of the Gowrie male, we have been seeing him in the eastern sections of Marthly, north of the Sand River and the core of his territory extends further east of that).
I have only seen Dudley Riverbank 5:5 male once and have always thought of him as quite a unique leopard because he is blind in one eye. A leopard, being solitary, only has itself to rely on so being partially blind and having to successfully set up territory, defend territory, stay out of harm’s way and hunt can be an extremely difficult task. Just think of how this male has had to adjust to life with one eye.
Being a cloudy and cool day, my thoughts were that he might have moved around and could be long gone; true to form he had indeed left the area, and the hard ground meant few tracks or signs to follow.
After working the area for some time, tracker Richard Mthabeni who I work with suddenly shouted, “Leopard, leopard!” The male was lying on a distant termite mound, staring fixedly at the entrance to a burrow on the one side.
Male leopards are well know for hunting warthogs. Once they know there is a warthog inside a burrow they can spend hours sitting patiently and waiting. From past experiences I knew that it could be hours until something happened, if anything happened at all, but this time luck was on our side. Within minutes of us arriving we saw the warthog sow stick her nose out of the burrow. Warthogs have an incredible sense of smell and she must have been aware of the leopard’s presence. As the sow made her dash from the burrow there was a mad blur of dust, rosettes and warthog fur, but before we or the leopard knew it, the sow was gone.
Once the dust had settled the leopard returned to the mound for a closer look. He walked towards the entrance of the burrow, whilst sniffing the air and probably keeping an eye out for the sow. He wanted to see whether there were any other warthogs still inside.
He slowly approached the entrance and then slipped completely out of sight, disappearing into the mound. We all sat in silence, the anticipation of what may happen growing amongst us.
To our surprise he emerged out of the hole with a tiny piglet clamped in his mouth. Still very small, the piglet made no sound at all and made no attempt to get away.
The sow had left the mound, in all likelihood to feed so that she could keep her strength to raise her piglets but in doing so had left them defenceless, at the mercy of the leopard.
As we watched him with the first piglet, a second piglet ran out from between his legs. Within seconds he had dropped the first piglet and was in hot pursuit of the second one, who although still very small, was extremely quick. As the leopard grabbed the second piglet it started squealing, alerting a third piglet to the danger. This last one leapt from the burrow and ran in the opposite direction to its litter mates. Incredibly, the leopard spotted it, dropped his grip on the second piglet and bounded after the final one. Sadly, this piglet met the same fate as its siblings.
It was a very sad day for the warthog sow but an absolutely incredible sight to witness. What amazed us was not only the speed of the piglets, but the speed and agility of this male leopard as well. It was astounding to see the way in which he moved and hunted regardless of his disability, judging distances to perfection. And so despite the severity of the scene, the greatest reminder for me was just how resilient leopards really are.
Written by Trevor McCall-Peat
Photographed by Trevor McCall-Peat and James Tyrrell, Londolozi Rangers