One of the most humbling aspects of guiding in an ever-changing environment, filled with unpredictable animal behaviours and seemingly infinite possibilities, is that there is always something new to be seen or learnt.
One early morning, just as the golden sunlight began flooding into the Sabi Sands, the Mashaba female and her (then 9 month old) daughter were found feeding on a kudu calf which the adult must have caught the evening before. There was still plenty of meat available for the two of them as the mother moved the carcass into a large Weeping Boerbean tree, and with the filled vehicles of rangers Nick Kleer, Don Heyneke and I there to marvel at the two stunning cats, the morning warmed up.
It was clear that the young daughter had been feeding during the few hours before any of us arrived as she had moved away from the tree and lay amongst some shrubs, full-bellied. To the delight of all of us, the Mashaba female decided it was time to feed again and climbed the tree in golden light to put another dent in the large meal for two. The main trunk of the tree was slanted and made for a slow and easy climb.
Cameras fired away.
A few minutes later she suddenly became very alert, staring into the distance. Perhaps some wandering antelope had caught her ear from up there? She was no longer interested in her meal as she repositioned in the canopy to get a better view, eyes wide open and ears forward. Body still. Very slowly she began taking calculated steps down the branch towards the sloped trunk with her body in a low position; it looked as if she was stalking, but from a tree. None of us had seen this type of behaviour before and were desperate to find out what she could see that was causing her such concern. The pendulum-like sway of the tip of her tail indicated concentration and she soon decided to very rapidly descend the tree and, without any further delay, flee the scene in the opposite direction to which she had been staring. Her sudden disappearance naturally triggered the same for her daughter, who vanished in a different direction but even more stealthily.
Left stranded in this now seemingly empty scenario the three vehicles of onlookers scanned the surrounding bush for what we now presumed to be the presence of another predator. Immediately through the thicket emerged the swaggering figure of a lioness. She proceeded at a slow but confidently steady pace toward the tree where she had most likely seen the leopard feeding from a distance. A sub-adult lioness followed with curiosity. These were two of the Mhangeni Pride.
There’s no need to try and explain the situation further in words, but rather show you the sequence which unfolded through our photographs. It was truly a new sight to us all.
What was most impressive was that, in her experience, the Mashaba female realised that the lionesses would be able to climb the slanted trunk of this boerbean and so would not be able to avoid conflict in the tree if they did climb up. She did what leopards do so well and weighed up her options, with any risk usually being avoided at all costs. She cut her losses by leaving the remaining Kudu carcass for the lionesses and fleeing the scene.
Later that afternoon, the illustrious ranger-tracker pairing of Melvin Sambo and Milton Khoza managed to track and find the Mashaba female in a faraway region of her territory with her daughter at her side. The two had moved well out of the lionesses’ reach and had settled in a dense drainage line, most likely to rest and digest. Their stolen meal was nothing to worry about as both had fed somewhat and, more importantly, escaped any conflict with two large lionesses; a successful day in the wild!
That aside, what we all had witnessed was incredibly rare and memorable. An already beautiful scene to experience is a leopard in a tree, but the actual climbing up or down is not always, witnessed as the cats can stay up there for hours. Not only had we watched a leopard climb both up and down a tree, but the same tree climbed by two large lionesses, separately. With a bit of action in between.
New experiences in the wild keep us all coming back for more and its dynamic possibilities are fascinating. A pleasing uncertainty is what makes this environment the most exciting one can experience and always rewards those who wait.