As is so often the case, it was the alarm calls of impalas that brought us into the area.
For one impala alas, the alarm calls were too little, too late, for Tracker Advice Ngwenya spotted the unmistakeable dangling form of an impala leg hanging out of a Marula tree. Draped over the carcass, his massive bulk unmistakeable, was the Anderson male leopard. Above him, right up in the top branches of the tree, was another leopard, at first difficult to identify because of all the branches in the way.
The ID of the second male was suddenly unimportant when the Anderson male turned his head towards us, as with horror we realised that his left eye was gone. Not injured, not scraped, not shut, but gone. Eyeball out. I know that sounds pretty gory, but that’s the reality of it.
Exactly what happened, we will never know. The Flat Rock male looks like he has recently been in a fight. Tracks of a male and female leopard were found on our western boundary, and the male tracks may well have belonged to the Anderson male, and then there was this sighting of the two leopards in the tree together. The second male was the much younger and much smaller Thamba male, who almost certainly made the kill, only to have the Anderson male rob him of it.
Any one of the three scenarios – encounter with the Flat Rock male, mating, or stealing a kill – could have resulted in the Anderson male losing an eye. An errant claw on the end of a vicious swipe could easily have hooked out his eyeball.
To be honest I’m just surprised that more leopards don’t lose their eyes in fights. Even mother/cub play-fights, meant as training for the younger leopard(s), could result in serious injury if the leopards aren’t careful.
The question is, what happens to the Anderson male now?
There have been many cases of leopards blinded in one eye that have survived to old age. The 5:5 male is probably our most recent example, although he lost sight in his left eye quite late in life. But is losing an eye as serious as it sounds? Well, for a predator, maybe.
Incredibly, the 5:5 male was adopted as a cub by his grandmother, the 3:4 female, and raised by her to adulthood.
Predators have binocular vision, specifically so they can judge distance; a crucial ability when chasing down prey and timing a leap or lunge. For a leopard (that is almost exclusively an ambush predator) an inability to tell just how far away something is may well be thought to be a deal-breaker. Close one of your eyes right now and move your index finger towards and then away from your face. Touch a few objects around you. It’s suddenly not as simple.
Having said that, a large male leopard like this probably has less to worry about than smaller individuals. After an adjustment period he will most likely be able to hunt almost as effectively as before (although not quite), but, as evidenced from this sighting with the Thamba male, he can rely largely on his bulk to steal from other leopards, of which there are currently a surplus in his territory, with a number of recently independent young individuals in particular that it should be easy to kleptoparisitize off.
Unofficially the biggest leopard in the Sabi Sands, the Anderson male is an absolutely enormous individual in north western Londolozi.
Strangely, the Anderson male didn’t seem too distressed by his injury. The wound looked like it had been seeping for a good day or two, so the eye may well have been lost before the encounter with the Thamba male, and this stealing of the Thamba male’s kill, with absolutely zero intention of sharing (the Anderson male simply lay on it for the whole morning, not even feeding, which prevented the Thamba male from escaping), may well have been the first step in this enormous male’s adjustment to a new lifestyle, which relies less on hunting, and far more on take-what-he-can-get.