Tracker Judas Ngomane and I were following wild dogs on a hunt. Andrea Sithole and Sersant Sibuyi had found them at Finfoot Crossing in the Sand River at first light.
It was exhilarating watching the pack move up out of the river. Wild dogs can also attract a lot of attention, especially when on the hunt, but they usually aren’t too fussed about it, primarily because they don’t rely on the element of surprise to catch their prey. They also regularly have hyenas and vultures following them in anticipation of a kill.
As we ascended the hill away from the Sand River the pack of 11 wild dogs picked up speed as they noticed a herd of impala in a clearing half way up the crest. Right on the pack’s heels, a hyena burst out of the bushes. Then another. And another. Four hyena where following. Then SWISH! A vulture flew low over our vehicle. We looked up to see three others flying low, keeping pace just behind the two groups of predators.
As we neared the impala we noticed zebra and giraffe in the same area. It was quite a scene with the wild dogs leading the charge, hyenas close behind, vultures over-head and three Londolozi game viewers following up towards the crest, soon to meet the general game up ahead.
All hell was about to break loose!
The wild dogs increased their pace as we neared. The first impala caught sight of the approaching pack, and it was instant panic as the herd exploded in different directions. When wild dogs are on the hunt impala usually don’t even waste their energy alarm calling, they simply scatter and run like hell! Impala were leaping over ever bush on the relatively open crest, the zebra were caught up in the general panic and also fled headlong, trying to bunch together as they did so, and even the giraffe, who were much too large to have anything to fear form the dogs, took off running in all directions.
Such was the chaos that we didn’t know where to look. The impala seemed to have made a speedy exit. The wild dogs turned their attention to the zebras that are normally too big a prey species for them. They seemed to turn it into a game, surrounding the zebras and charging them at them, but turning away at the last minute. Soon they lost interest and carried on the hunt. The spectators followed; hyenas, vultures and us.
We followed them all the way to our airstrip where they slunk into a thicket just next to a clearing that housed another healthy looking herd of impala. Like in their previous attempt, wild dogs often just charge in, cause chaos and hope to catch one of the antelope in the confusion.
This time they had a more coordinated approach.
We could just see one waiting at the edge of the thicket. Then three more joined, and soon the whole pack was waiting, hidden on the edge of the clearing.
As one they suddenly emerged, full tilt, out of the thicket, belting straight for the impala. Again, CHAOS. Impala exploded from the huddled herd! Most of them onto the airstrip, sticking to the open ground where they could maintain their fastest speed. The wild dogs caught up and one managed to connect with a ewe, tripping it up right on the tarmac. The whole pack converged, tearing into the fallen ewe. Two hyenas who had managed to keep up lingered on the outskirts, the vultures settled in a nearly tree and we positioned for a better view.
A brave hyena stole in and pulled away an impala leg as the wild dog chased it out nipping it on the rump. The successful hyena was so desperate to stay close to the action that it reversed under ranger Fin and tracker Innocent’s front bumper in defense as some of the wild dogs chased it off.
Have a look at these two videos of what can happen when a hyena gets a bit too close to wild dogs:
All this commotion was causing a lot of noise; wild dog feeding and chattering and hyenas laughing excitedly as they tried to steal meat. While watching all this, my guest sitting right behind me suddenly shouted, “Leopard!” True as nuts there it was: a big male leopard coming to investigate. It stood just off the airstrip, simply observing for a few minutes, unnoticed by the engrossed carnivores.
Then it disappeared behind a bush before suddenly reemerging silently but with speed toward the hyena who had stolen the impala leg! Taking its chance while the hyena was momentarily distracted, it grabbed the impala leg from the surprised hyena and took off. When the shocked hyena realised what had happened it immediately gave chase. Some of the wild dogs had noticed and they took off in pursuit. We saw the leopard launch up a nearby Marula tree to safety. The wild dogs returned to their feast, leaving the hyena looking miserably up at the leopard like a dog at the dinner table.
After the short snack the leopard descended. We had moved round to view it by then. It retreated into some thick brush where we temporarily lost sight of it. Fin and I looped around trying to find it again. Peering through the thicket Judas spotted it. Great! We moved closer for a better look as I radioed Fin to let him know. He immediately radioed back from the other side of the thicket saying “But I have just found the leopard here…” This was strange. As we got closer we took a better look: this was a female leopard! The Nkoveni female, it seemed, had also been brought in by the commotion.
Two leopards had come to investigate what all this commotion was about. Presumably both hoping they would be able to scavenge a meal, although the Nkoveni female had not managed to get anything.
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.
A leopard who took advantage of the death of the 4:4 male in 2016 to grab territory to the west of the Londolozi camps.
The King of Londolozi in his day; an enormous male whose offspring still inhabit the reserve.
Not long after this sighting Judas and I were lucky enough to be sitting with ranger/tracker pair, Pete Thorpe and Bennet Mathonsi with another pack of wild dog. This time the intrepid hunters were resting in some shade. Shortly after joining the sighting, Pete started pointing at me. I could not work out what he was saying as I kept shrugging and mouthing “What?” to him. Eventually he picked up his radio and said “Look behind you!”. Swivelling round I saw the Tamboti female leopard sitting just behind our vehicle, craning her neck to investigate the wild dogs. Was she also here opportunistically evaluating the scene, hoping for a quick and easy meal?
A leopard hoping to steal from a wild dog pack is running a grave risk; the canids have been known to literally tear leopards limb from limb before, and many is the time we have seen the unsuspecting cats chased into the trees by a roaming pack.
When it comes to predators in the wild, none of them have a sure next meal. Hunting is hard work, and all of them need to be highly opportunistic. It is well known that hyenas scavenge, but lion and leopards will also readily scavenge from other predators like cheetah, hyena and other smaller carnivores when they need to.