It was not long after sunrise and a male lion was already bellowing close to camp.
We spent time with him as he roared into the crisp morning air, when suddenly impalas began alarming in a thicket only a few hundred metres away. John Varty was in the area and radioed us to say that he had found the Nkoveni female leopard. She was so close to the Birmingham male lion that we could see John’s Land Rover moving through the bushes. He said that the leopard had a kill up in a marula tree. Swivelling in our seats and grabbing our binoculars, we could see her sprawled out on a limb, belly plump from having fed on the young impala draped over the branch above her.
As the male lion lay down to sleep we decided to drive the short distance over to the leopard to see if she would become active. Before long she got up, took a leisurely stretch and swiftly moved up the tree to her meal, where she fed for a short time, frequently looking around for any trouble on the horizon. After all, we weren’t all that far away from the male lion and she would certainly have heard him roaring! Although the kill was quite high in the tree, lions are well known to climb in order to steal a kill from a leopard, so I’m sure she was hoping he wouldn’t see her.
To our surprise, she then began to tug at the carcass from beneath it as she started to back down the limb and trunk of the tree – she was pulling it out of the tree! She managed to twist herself and the impala around so she that was facing downwards and stopped to take a breather at the crotch of the tree.
Strength gathered, she gave another quick look around for danger, before heading down the tree and onto the ground, the kill clamped firmly between her teeth.
Once on the ground she dragged the carcass through the bushes and grass, stopping often to catch her breath, reposition her prize in her mouth and check for danger.
We watched her tug that carcass a quarter of a mile or more, eventually heading down into a drainage where she hid it behind a tangle of downed tree branches and other debris. She was out of sight for some time, and may even have fed a little bit, but before long we spotted her emerging from the drainage again and out into the open. Grant our guide and Jerry Hambana our tracker, speculated that she was headed to where she’d stashed her cub and so we followed her. She moved through thickets and trees and over termite mounds, and Grant and Jerry did a great job at keeping up with her.
Almost an hour after leaving the kill, she finally began calling for her cub, sounding the distinctive gruff-sounding chuff of a mother leopard’s. She started circling and doubling back in one area, doing more looking than walking.
After what seemed a worrisome long time, her little cub appeared, meeting up with its mother in a thick bush that made viewing pretty tough. The Nkoveni female appeared to be all business however, immediately setting off in the direction of the drainage line where she had stashed the kill. The little cub ran quickly, its short legs taking much smaller strides than its mother which made keeping up a struggle for it.
The whole experience made for an unforgettable morning and left us realizing again that the life of a mother leopard is a difficult one in so many ways. To bring a cub to maturity – providing it with food, water, training, safety – is no small task and the opportunity for a glimpse into her life that day was an awesome one!