When a group of people with a combined bush experience of around 80 years is raving about how incredible a sighting was, you know it was pretty spectacular.
We were out on a staff drive, sitting watching three white rhinos in the quiet of a golden Londolozi afternoon while an impala herd grazed peacefully nearby.
Suddenly the stillness was shattered by the alarm calls of the impalas; n indication that they had in all likelihood seen a predator. As we raced towards them to investigate, we saw a number of male impalas chasing each other round and round in circles; an early sign of the rut which will be beginning in the next 6 weeks or so. Realising we may well have been duped as many have before, thinking the exuberant calls of the rams chasing each other were in fact those of genuine alarm, we were prepared to laugh at ourselves and move back to the rhinos.
Approaching the herd, we noticed that although they were looking in the direction of where the males were rutting, a significant portion of them seemed to be formed up in a ring, all facing inwards towards the centre. There simply must be something disturbing them there. Circling around in the Land Rover, we suddenly caught sight of a white belly and sporadically kicking legs behind a grass clump. There was an impala on the ground, but what had brought it down? A python?
It was only as we looked through the binoculars that we saw the golden eyes looking back at us from over the impala’s neck, where the leopard that they belonged to was still applying her suffocating grip.
A leopard needs to kill quickly and it needs to kill quietly. Any distress call from its victim could bring in other predators, so the suffocating neck grip is best to strangle a possible distress call and quickly subdue the prey.
In this instance, with the impala herd going ballistic around her, the leopard (who we’d by now identified as the Tamboti female) knew that any need for stealth was long gone; she just had to kill the ewe and get it into cover.
She had the first part done in only a few minutes, but she was far from any decent concealment.
Knowing the territory as well as she does, she realised that the best cover as well as the best trees that would offer any hoisting potential would lie near the Maxabene riverbed, a scant 150m away. Getting the kill – which probably weighed in excess of 50kg -to the tree-line would be no mean feat, and the leopard had to stop a number of times to catch her breath during the drag, scanning anxiously each time in case any rival predators were moving in. The impala herd were still alarming furiously at her, so she didn’t dawdle, but kept moving doggedly towards the long grass and undergrowth near the riverbed.
She was moving through a section without any large Jackalberry or Tamboti trees, common species for leopards to hoist their kills in, but a number of decent-sized russet bushwillows looked suitable for her. Just as she approached the base of one of the larger ones, movement off to the side caught our attention, and looking towards it we saw the unmistakeable form of a hyena rushing towards where the impala herd, having lost sight of the leopard, were giving their last fews alarm barks.
The Tamboti female, meanwhile, hadn’t seen the hyena, and even if she had, the kill would have been pretty heavy for her to try and hoist immediately. Instead, she settled down to feed in some long grass, ensuring that she got at least some benefit from the kill, and if something did come along, the carcass would be lighter and slightly easier to take up a tree.
With the wind swirling, the hyena had missed the leopard on its first pass, and had disappeared. We knew it would be back however, and the whole vehicle kept anxiously looking round, feeling sure that the unsuspecting leopard was about to lose her kill. Eventually the hyena reappeared behind us, and with the carcass now having been opened and the scent of blood fresh on the breeze, the result was a foregone conclusion.
When a leopard gets robbed by a hyena, it will more often than not remain close by – aware that the hyena is only interested in feeding – in the hope of maybe stealing some small part of the kill back. The Tamboti female followed the playbook to the letter, quietly grooming herself within 10 metres of where the hyena was wolfing down great chunks of impala.
Eating frantically, crunching through bones as if they were candy, the hyena was constantly turning his head, also anxious of marauding rivals. After feeding for 10 minutes or so, he suddenly snapped his head round, froze to listen intently, and then took off running, abandoning the carcass. Having seen the speed at which he fled, we all expected a pride of lions to come tearing out of the bushes.
But nothing happened.
What had spooked the hyena we’ll never know, but although she was probably as confused as we were by this unexpected turn of events, the Tamboti female nevertheless saw the opportunity that had just been gifted to her and quickly dashed in to grab the impala, of which still about 80% was left. With the hyena having eaten a good chunk of it, the carcass was now both lighter and more manageable, and the leopard made no mistake this time, hoisting it high into a russet bushwillow just as they hyena came running back in to try and recover from its mistake.
Whilst we try not to take sides in such an encounter, we were all pretty vocally and unashamedly rooting for the leopard. Knowing how difficult it must have been for her to remain undetected for so long, taking the impala down and then dragging it all that way, we felt it only fair that she ended up with the bulk of the kill, even though the hyena was simply fulfilling its role as the opportunistic predator and scavenger it’s meant to be.
Realising the leopard would probably want to fetch her cub to the carcass at some point during the evening, and having seen how quickly things could swing back and forth, we decided to leave her be as darkness approached, satisifed that at least for now in our minds, it was a happy ending.