It is well-established that leopards will hoist their kills into trees to get them out of reach of hyenas and lions. Many times we have watched the Leopards of Londolozi hoist carcasses far heavier than their own bodyweight up vertical trunks in incredible displays of strength, and should they manage to do so before a rival predator comes on the scene, they will likely be able to feed in relative peace for a day or two.
Should they not hoist in good time, however, they are likely to have a marauding hyena rid them of their hard-earned meal. Just how many kills the leopards here lose to hyenas in particular we can’t say, but I imagine it is far more than we would think, as evidenced by a recent sighting of the Nkoveni female leopard.
A young female that lives to the east and south of camp. Easily recognised by her 2:2 spot pattern she is often to be found in Marula trees.
One of her cubs had been found in a marula tree in a fairly open clearing to the east of camp, clearly waiting for its mother to return to it. Liam Henderson and I were in a Land Rover nearby, watching the cub through our binoculars, when an unholy din broke out a few hundred metres further east of us. It was the sound of many impalas giving their alarm snorts all in unison, so we jammed the vehicle into gear and raced towards where the commotion was coming from.
Now, we find many predators at Londolozi thanks to the various prey species that give off alarm calls, but with impala in particular, different levels of their snorting can actually go a long way towards telling you what has happened with the predator in question. The snorting from all the individual impalas is fairly consistent when they have seen a leopard, but the calling rises up to a different level entirely when a leopard has had a crack at catching one of them, and they are far more distressed. If the leopard has managed to catch an impala out of the herd, their snorting reaches an unmistakeable frantic level. This absolute bedlam of snorting was what we were hearing as we drove away from the cub, and cresting a low rise we could see ahead of us a herd of maybe 50 impala, going absolutely ballistic in their alarm calling, all staring fixedly at a thicket line near them.
Antelope that have sighted a predator are the equivalent of pointer dogs, and tell you exactly where you should be looking, so it was towards this thicket line that we drove. When we were still a good 100m away, a cloud of dust emerged from behind a large Raisin bush thicket, and out of the dust slid the sleek form of a leopard, dragging a still-kicking impala ram between its legs.
Wild with excitement, and with the impala still snorting up a storm, we radioed what we were seeing to the other vehicles in the area while the leopard maintained her death grip on the impala’s throat. Realising that she was dragging her kill (a poorly chosen word, as you will soon see), straight towards a nearby Jackalberry tree that would offer better cover among its foliage than the bare marulas, we repositioned the Land Rover for a slightly better view. As we switched off again, we were horrified to see the leopard suddenly drop the impala and rush off into the thicket line. Had we disturbed her? Had we gotten too close? It seemed incredibly unlikely, but all was suddenly clear as behind us we suddenly spied a hyena running down the hill towards the scene.
Obviously the hyena, just as we did, must have heard the noise of the impalas calling, and also realised what it signified. Knowing their was a potential free meal up for grabs, it had come loping in, and was now looking this way and that for the kill that it was sure must be nearby.
Helplessly, the Nkoveni female could only watch the inevitable happen. An unexpected twist in the story occurred when the young impala that that the she had been dragging suddenly stood up on wobbly legs! The leopard hadn’t had time to asphyxiate it properly, and now dazed and confused it was attempting to make its way back to its herd. Unfortunately, this made it far more visible to the hyena, which promptly raced in and seized it by the hindquarters.
The impala’s struggles were relatively brief. In its weakened state the hyena was able to subdue it quite quickly, despite it making a valiant effort to break free.
The hyena’s sense of hearing must have been phenomenal for it to have been able to detect the impalas alarm calling from far away (we assume it was far away based on the time that elapsed between the first alarm calls and the arrival of the hyena). How many kills has the Nkoveni female – and indeed any other leopard – lost to hyenas before she could hoist her kill to safety? It’s impossible to say for sure, but I imagine a fair number.
We were once sitting with a hyena that suddenly pricked up its ears and went dashing off for over two kilometres to where a leopard had had a crack at some impala, but had missed. We hadn’t heard a thing, but the hyena had heard the alarm calls and had been able to cover the ground at over 40km an hour to get there as fast as possible, to give itself the best chance of securing a meal.
Love them or hate them, hyenas need to be recognised as the super predators they are, with senses and physical abilities that far too often go unappreciated!
I doubt the Nkoveni female would appreciate the warm sentiment in this instance!