Chris visited Londolozi 20 years ago and had always planned to come back. On arrival he had told me that he had seen the most incredible things the last time that he visited. Little did Chris and his fiancé Wendy know that 20 years later, the stakes were about to be raised even more.
While searching the southern parts of Londolozi for a leopard, we came across two tiny leopard cubs, still smoky grey with their spots still not clearly delineated, peering out at us through a rocky outcrop. While examining the ground for signs of the mother, Elmon found fresh tracks of her moving away from the den site. We followed.
The tracks continued up the road and then disappeared. When we paused to take a moment to re-establish the direction of the tracks, we heard the distress call of a young duiker. As we approached, Elmon spotted the Ndzandzeni female leopard sitting straight up with her paw on top of a duiker lamb. As the young duiker continued to distress call, the leopard peered attentively into the surrounding thickets. “She’s waiting for the mother duiker to come looking for the lamb”, said Elmon. It dawned on me that we were witnessing something incredible that very little is known about. Usually when leopards catch their prey, they block the windpipe, suffocating their prey, but also preventing distress calls which could attract the unwanted attention of hyena or lions. The Ndzandzeni female didn’t do this though. She allowed the duiker to call for a few minutes until inevitably, the mother duiker returned. When the mother duiker approached, the leopard waited and a standoff between two mothers, both desperate to ensure the survival of their young, took place. The duiker had no choice, she had to leave her lamb, which was then quickly suffocated by the leopard.
Completely astonished by what I had just seen, I tried to consult the books to see if this phenomenon had ever been witnessed before. After paging relentlessly through the literature, including one of the most intensive studies ever carried out in this area by Ted Bailey, I simply could not find this having been documented. We were by no means the first to see this, but that’s beside the point. It has opened up another window into the world of leopards, both beautiful and cunning. The fear of being anthropomorphic makes me hesitant to be too quick to answer, but could leopards use the distress calls of young antelope to attract the mother so they they get the chance of catching a second meal? His experience following leopards over the last 45 years has led Elmon to witness this phenomenon several times before. He thinks they do. Sandros Sihlangu, a ranger who has been at Londolozi for nearly 25 years, has also witnessed a similar event before where a female leopard allowed a young impala to distress call repeatedly until the mother came back. The leopard caught the mother and lamb and subsequently hoisted both impalas into a nearby tree.
Part of the elation of working in the bush and seeing these animals on a daily basis is that this kind of rare behaviour is constantly being uncovered. These experiences have not been documented in the books, but those who write the books don’t profess to know everything. Our understanding of leopards and their secretive behaviour continues to grow, and it pleases me to know that although we know a lot more than we did, we will never understand it all, and the mystery of leopards will always remain.
All photographs by Londolozi Guest, Wendy Whitmore