Being a spectator to nature’s incredible events is all we can ask for. Isolated and non-impactful viewing of wildlife is a privilege and reveals to us the smallest window of what truly happens in the wilderness. At the beginning of March a lucky few of us witnessed a battle of leopards for the ages; one which culminated in the tops of a massive Marula tree.
The morning was without a sunrise as gloomy, dark clouds lined the sky, and we found the Nkoveni female patrolling the outer edges of her territory. Just when she looked to start settling down on a termite mound, clearly after a long night spent walking and scent marking, the clouds opened up for some beautiful photographic opportunities.
Interrupting this moment, though, was the unmistakable (and very reliable) alarm call of a Side-striped jackal in the distance. This not only made tracker Rob Hlatshwayo attempt to start my vehicle himself to investigate the jackal’s call but it got the leopard’s attention too. Also knowing that the alarm could signal the presence of another leopard, her attention was set and her body language changed from restful to high alert. Ranger Ntsako Sibuyi, who had by then joined us in the sighting, drove off in the direction of the alarm while we kept our eye on the Nkoveni female, who soon vanished amongst the expansive bushwillow thickets, but was last seen heading in the direction of the jackal’s cries.
Within a minute, Ntsako and tracker Exon Sibuyi had found the reason for the alarm calls of the jackal, as chaos was breaking out between two other leopards not too far way. A heavily salivating 4:4 male had chased the Tamboti young female up a tree and was pacing back and forth at its base, perhaps not willing to follow her up. As we joined Ntsako, the 4:4 male began moving away, scent marking as he did. But before he disappeared, the Tamboti young female descended the tree and began moving away too, which enticed him to turn and chase her again. She quickly clawed her way up another tree; again being followed to its base by the male. Evidently the two of them had been doing this several times as both looked uneasy and fairly out of breath. A loud territorial call from the 4:4 male finalised his departure from the scene and he quickly disappeared in the direction of the Sand River.
As the male now seemed far enough away, the Tamboti young female descended again and spent a minute looking towards the river to ensure there was going to be no further chase from the enigmatic and far ranging male. Avoidin any physical contact with him, she began moving in the opposite direction to most likely try and find somewhere quiet to rest. The Tamboti young female, as her name suggests, is still not territorial and constantly explores potential areas in which to settle, but the one she in which she currently found herself was the Nkoveni female’s; also a young leopard but about 6 months older, territorial and nearby.
With the arrival and help from ranger Dave Strachan, we quickly spotted the Nkoveni female in a nearby thicket looking very focused. The commotion has led her straight to Tamboti young female who was now somewhat more relaxed and unaware of the other female’s presence. With intent, the Nkoveni female began approaching from a distance as the intrusion of the Tamboti young female was clearly not about to be tolerated. Only then did the Tamboti young female become aware of the other’s sudden appearance and reacted quickly by trying to flee. She dashed to the nearest Marula tree, a particularly big and tall one, and climbed fairly high up while the pursuing Nkoveni female approached the base; both leopards growling deeply unlike during the previous confrontations involving the 4:4 male, in which both parties were relatively silent.
We had just repositioned ourselves for a fairly unobstructed view of the tree when the Nkoveni female launched herself into the Marula. The Tamboti young female was forced higher and outward onto flimsy branches, and then with nowhere further to go, turned to confront her charging rival. It was only through viewing photographs and frames of video that we could see that it was Tamboti young female who swiped first, which was followed by a retaliating tackle from the Nkoveni female which sent both leopards tumbling from the leaves in a tight ball of claws, fur and twigs. It all happened so fast, but the thing everyone remembers the most was the sound of them hitting the hard ground far below. The deep thud only interrupted their growling and snarling momentarily as both resumed the fight, now in a cloud of dust. After a brief grapple there, the two exploded apart and another chase began, with the Tamboti young female doing the fleeing once more. By the time we caught up to the two of them the chase had slowed and eventually the Nkoveni came to a standstill, following up with a territorial call and a scratch into the ground with her hind legs as she watched the Tamboti young female depart. Her battle was won, but at such a high risk? Pun intended.
What followed was a thorough walk around the surrounding area where the Nkoveni female marked every prominent Marula that we could see with her scent, continuing to vocalise every minute or so. Besides heavy panting, all she was sporting was a small trickle of blood from her left cheek and below her left eye. In fact, both leopards seemed in surprisingly good condition considering the height of their fall and the fact that they definitely did not land in the supposedly typical feet-first way we are meant to associate with cats.
It was a horrific height from which they tumbled and we subsequently went back to the tree to remind ourselves what we had just seen. Opinions varied, but the height at which they engaged one another was about 10-12m (around 36ft) above the ground – some say more, and there was nothing breaking their fall on the way down. This was not even the first altercation of this kind in which the Tamboti Young female has been involved, although at least last time she wasn’t the one doing the falling.
It is incredible that both females were able to avoid any serious internal injuries or broken bones from the impact. Neither showed any sign of discomfort in the immediate aftermath of the fall. Both the Nkoveni and Tamboti young females were viewed, separately, the following day by various rangers and neither showed any signs of the brawl at all. They have since continued their daily routines; the Nkoveni female patrolling and the Tamboti young female hunting and resting, albeit outside of her rival’s territory.
The determination of the Nkoveni female to prove her dominance and solidify her territorial boundaries by any means could be stemming from maternal instinct. Stains and suckle marks, as well as regular movement into a hidden and dense area of the Sand River indicate she has a young litter nearby. As such, she would be taking no chances in allowing foreign females into the area. As for the 4:4 male, it is accepted that he fathered the cubs as the two mated for quite some time leading up to November last year. His movements around that area have not been observed yet but any presence would most likely be tolerated by the mother.
Witnessing a brutal spectacle like this reaffirms how tough and resilient these big cats are. Not only that, but it reminds us of the powerful maternal instinct of a mother leopard and the lengths a solitary cat in the wild will go to ensure the survival of her offspring.
Being in the right place at the right time, and seeing the subsequent lack of injury to both females, furthermore illustrates how often these types of altercations can (and probably do) happen far more regularly than we realise. Just another feather in the ever impressive cap of a wild leopard.
Footage courtesy of Iain Evans.