Ranger Tom Imrie and tracker Jerry Hambana were watching a journey of giraffe with their guests, when Jerry’s hand suddenly shot up for the vehicle to be quiet and listen. “Mfo (brother)”, he said, “distress call down near the drainage!”. The rest of the vehicle sat silently, straining to hear what Jerry’s keen ears had detected, but there was nothing. Jerry was adamant that he had heard the noise of an antelope being grabbed by a predator, and on his insistence, Tom manouevred the Land Rover down into the thicket and along the bank of the small riverbed.
Within only 100 metres or so, it was Tom’s turn to exclaim and point, as he spied two spotted shapes high up in a marula tree. It was the Mashaba female leopard and her 10-month old cub, with the freshly-caught carcass of a duiker. A young hyena circled ominously on the ground below.
One can get a skewed idea of how much time leopards spend in trees by the way they are often portrayed in mainstream photographic media, but in fact they spend far more of their time on the ground. Hearing about Tom’s sighting on the radio, we realised that the chance of seeing two leopards in a tree at the same time was too good to miss, so we moved quickly towards where Tom and Jerry were watching.
When we arrived there was little action, as both mother and cub were lying together in the main fork of the marula, but soon after we got into position, the adult female moved slightly higher in the tree, allowing the cub to feed. Unlike lions, leopards almost never feed on a carcass together, preferring to do it one-at-a-time, but it seems in this case the Mashaba female was allowing her cub a valuable learning opportunity as well.
With the hyena skulking below, there would be scant chance of descending to re-hoist the kill should it fall, so there could be no mistakes by the cub if it moved the kill around to be able to feed more easily. It was a case of do it right or lose the meal.
Well, the cub nearly got it spectacularly wrong, with the duiker carcass slipping on a number of occasions. Fortunately, thanks to lightning fast reflexes and incredible agility, the adult female was able to grab the kill each time before it fell, and after growling her displeasure at the cub it left off trying to feed and took to running circuits through the branches instead.
The hyena skulking nearby was a relatively young one, so there’s always the chance the Mashaba female would have been able to reclaim the kill if it dropped. Maybe she wouldn’t have given the cub such a chance had the hyena been bigger and the consequences for dropping the kill more final. We can’t know for sure.
What we do know is that the sighting was one of the more memorable in recent weeks, and it served to further cement the leopard’s reputation as the absolute master of the trees.