The answer to the question in the title? Awesome, shocking, inspiring. You cannot help but feel an elation of spirit. The way a leopard moves its slight but incredibly strong body with grace and in silence grabs your attention so powerfully that you do not think of anything else while you are watching. Even the most talkative of people are quietened by the natural phenomenon of a leopard climbing.
So it was again a few days ago as we watched two leopards leaping between the branches of a large Ebony tree. At times I became conscious of the lack of sound produced by the humans on both vehicles and the heightened attention and focus on what was unfolding in front of us. Everyone was utterly fixated on the leopards.
The Nkoveni female had killed an impala around midday, and when we found her that afternoon she was tired and panting hard. Her cub was lying a short distance away from her; the carcass had been stripped of its entrails and most of the meat had not yet been touched.
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.
When the adult female had regained some energy she got up, walked to the carcass and started feeding. The carcass was stashed in a thicket and we couldn’t see much although could hear skin and flesh being torn and small bones cracking.
The tall Jackalberry tree we were parked under had the perfect arrangement of trunk, branches and leaves for a hoist and subsequent stashing. Leopards, especially those with experience, tend to favour certain trees to hoist their kills. Jackalberries are one of those species.
A few minutes later the female stopped feeding, looked in our direction and then gazed up the trunk of the great Jackalberry. When a leopard looks up into a tree a few times, it is a good sign it is going to climb. We reversed back, to a distance where we would not affect her path to the tree.
Lo and behold, she hoisted the carcass in front of us. She grabbed the impala in her jaws and jumped, gripping onto the bark with unsheathed claws and scrambling her way upward. We could hear the sounds of shards of bark being torn off the trunk as she climbed. It was not effortless; she was working hard to pull the carcass up with her. She stopped midway on a small outstretched branch and plotted the rest of her route up. She then leapt up and in our direction. The branch we thought most unlikely for her to stash the kill ironically turned out to be the one she chose.
So there she was, pulling the carcass over a narrow branch almost directly above us. We could see her white underbelly juxtaposed by the dark bark of the ebony; she moved slowly and carefully and took the carcass to the outer edges of the long thin branch. She left the carcass there, walked back the way she came, and lay down with her legs hanging on either side of the branch.
It was then her cub’s turn. The young female walked over to the base of the tree and leapt up. She took about twice as long to get up as her mother before her, even though the mother was dragging the impala. Experience goes a long way.
She arrived at the branch her mother was on and leapt over her with ease. She walked over the narrow branch to the kill stashed on the splayed branches at the end. She followed the same path as her mother and as you can imagine we were all gazing up at the cub with gaping mouths and wide eyes. She then started feeding…
Shortly after this she decided to move the carcass. Bear in mind the the carcass weighed about three times as much as the cub. She moved it a foot or so back along the branch but as she did so, a part of the impala got stuck. She pulled with all her might but it wouldn’t budge. She was struggling to hold on.
The carcass then fell out of the branches entirely and the cub was holding on with only one outstretched paw. She was using her back legs to hold herself up but after a couple of seconds (and we were blown away that she could even hold it there for that long) she dropped the impala and it fell to the ground within feet of the front of our Land Rover. I must be honest; with all the tension and excitement with this last spectacle we struggled to remain quiet and were laughing at the comical look on the cub’s face.
Within a few seconds the Nkoveni female was down from the tree and striding over to collect her dropped bounty. If hyenas had been close by they would have heard the noise of the carcass landing and sprinted in to claim it. Once the female had clasped the kill in her jaws once again she pulled it over to the base of the tree, regained some energy, plotted her route up, and then leapt up for the second time with the carcass in her jaws. This time she chose a different arrangement of branches to stash the kill, and on coming back a day later we saw that it was still there.
It is important for a young leopard to make these mistakes. Some result in the kill being stolen by hyenas if they are close and some result in an angry snarl from their mother. Ultimately, the sighting had us all captivated; it was a scene I will surely never forget. As I said, there are few things that inspire awe like a leopard so expertly manoeuvring itself among the branches of a tree!