One of the most exciting things to witness out in the bush is the process of how a leopard gets its kill up into a tree. Most of us guides out here have been lucky enough to see what is termed a “hoist” at least once or twice, but although leopards are regularly taking their kills into trees, actually witnessing it is by no means a common occurrence.
The stars have align for you, because first of all you have to find a leopard, then that leopard needs to have made a kill fairly recently, and the kill then has to be the right size for the leopard to carry. There also has to be a suitable tree for the leopard to hoist into, before the smell of the kill attracts the unwanted attention of any hyenas or lions. When all these factors come together, the leoaprd still needs to actually make the decision to hoist, and you need to still be there to see the event take place. So, as much as we praise the work and skill of our phenomenal trackers who help us find the leopard in the first place, sometimes a little bit of luck is needed to witness the actual hoist.
What makes it so exciting to watch is the supreme strength on display as the leopard drags its kill across the ground before casting it’s eyes upwards, inspecting the climbing route and then leaping into the boughs of the tree with its meal in tow. However, this doesn’t always go according to plan as Shaun D’araujo witnessed when the Anderson Male attempted to hoist a fully grown impala into a Marula tree only to fail in spectacular fashion and come tumbling down.
This may happen sometimes when a leopard is feeling rushed to get its kill into the safety of a tree due to the threat of a rival predator, and doesn’t choose the correct route up a tree or chooses a tree that is less than adequate for its needs. We have often seen kills that have been hoisted up into trees which may have not been the first choice of a leopard but necessity and lack of time meant that they had no other option in that moment.
Guests often ask how much a leopard can actually carry up into a tree and at what point does it make the decision to hoist? These questions have stimulated a lot of interesting discussions amongst the guides as different people recounted their experiences and observations.
A leopard will usually be able to hoist slightly more than its own body weight. This is an incredible feat of strength when you think that that weight is being carried in the mouth with the carcass hanging between its legs, as it digs only it’s claws into the bark of a vertical tree trunk!
The Mashaba female is currently Londolozi’s best-known leopard. Her relaxed nature means she is comfortable around the vehicles.
Having been viewed by vehicles from an early age, this leopard is supremely relaxed around Land Rovers.
One example that leaps to mind was when the Anderson male hoisted a giraffe calf into a tree in 2015. No one was there to actually witness the hoist but he was discovered in the morning feeding on the giraffe that would have weighed over 100kg!
Unofficially the biggest leopard in the Sabi Sands, the Anderson male is an absolutely enormous individual in north western Londolozi.
Leopards don’t always hoist their kills though and we have countless examples of where we have seen them feeding on their kills on the ground. Even though they are more than capable of hoisting that weight into a tree, sometimes the situation is such that it is not necessary in their eyes. They may deem at that moment that their energy is better spent on feeding as opposed to dragging and hoisting the kill. It could be that the kill is so small that it is only a matter of minutes before it is finished off and it would be a waste of time to hoist it. It may also be the case that the habitat in which it made the kill is dense and inaccessible and the kill is relatively safe on the ground. But certainly the main driving factor that causes a leopard to hoist it’s kill is the presence of opportunistic predators such as lions and hyenas.
It was noted that during the time when the Majingilane Male lions were dominant on the majority of Londolozi that the Hyena population decreased as they moved away from the massive threat that the lion coalition posed. This meant that their was now less chance of a leopard’s kill being stolen by hyenas and the leopards seemed to adjust their behaviour accordingly; choosing to feed on their kills on the ground instead of up in a tree. This behaviour also occurs in other parts of South Africa where lion and hyena populations are not as high as they are in the Sabi Sands. Once the Majingilane coalition moved off Londolozi the hyena numbers began to increase again and soon the leopards responded by hoisting their kills once more.
Being able to hoist the weight that they do and in the manner in which they do it makes leopards arguably, pound-for-pound, the strongest of all the big cats in the world which gives us even more cause to celebrate and admire them more. Whenever I am lucky enough to find a leopard with a kill on the ground my heart rate quickens just a little bit as I scan the area, picturing which tree they are hopefully going to take it up into. It doesn’t always work out but when it does it really is quite something to behold.
For some exciting videos showing leopards hoisting their kills into trees here at Londolozi click on the links below.