As I watched the Flat Rock male clamber for his life up a marula tree before the Tsalala female caught him, it struck me that this was probably a reenactment of a scene that has played out between these two felines many, many times. And I’m not talking about lions and leopard, but specifically these two individuals. Just like in the cartoons in which Tom is always chasing Jerry but never quite gets hold of him, I think the Flat Rock male (and most likely other leopards as well), has so far managed to keep just out of reach of the Tsalala female. Emphasis on the “so far”…
I doubt the leopard recognised the lioness, and I doubt she recognised him, or ever does, but given their respective territories – which over the last few months especially have been heavily concentrated along the Sand River – what we were witnessing was almost certainly not an isolated event.
We published some purely theoretical numbers in a blog a couple of months ago about how much of the time we are actually viewing the leopards here (the most viewed individuals at Londolozi would probably spend less than 10% of their lives being seen by human eyes), and that the reality was that most interactions – hunting, stalking, mating, or whatever it might be – take place without a soul present. Day and night. When we are fortunate enough to be on site when an amazing sighting unfolds, and we “Ooh” and “aah“, the reality is that the rarity is not necessarily the sighting itself, but the fact that someone is there to see it.
I’m not in anyway trying to downplay what we see. A lioness chasing a leopard up a tree is phenomenal, and incredibly exciting. Wild dogs vs. hyenas, lions taking down buffalo, leopards hoisting kills… it’s all taking place constantly in an area as vast as the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Park. Most of it simply happens in some thick block, far from any road, or in the dead of night. Imagine you were only allowed to watch 7 or 8 minutes of a football game. How few goals would you see? They are being scored regularly, but the chances that one would happen during that specific viewing window would be minimal. Hopefully that puts the wildlife viewing into context.
Which brings me back to the Tsalala lioness and the Flat Rock male. I’d say offhand the male is spotted from the deck of one of the Londolozi camps about once a week, if not more. The same for the lioness. Although lions generally patrol much bigger territories than leopards, the Tsalala female has essentially restricted the majority of her movements to a few kilometres of Sand River since she lost her pride. Yes she has moved further away on occasion, but by far the majority of drives in which she is found, she is within a few hundred metres of the river, and most of the time she is down in it.
If these two felines are constantly patrolling the same stretch of river, and have been doing so for the past few years, their must have been many encounters between them. And so far the Flat Rock male has always stayed one step ahead, at least it would appear that way.
In a video shot a few months ago by Ranger Sean Zeederberg the Anderson male walked straight into the Tsalala female but managed to get away, and he’s probably not the only one. The Nhlanguleni, Mashaba and Nkoveni female all spend time in the Sand River and must have all bumped into this same lioness at one time or another. A few factors have probably kept these leopards alive.
- The lioness is alone. If she was operating as part of a pride it might be a different story, as in running away from one lion a leopard could easily run into another.
- There is lots of cover in the Sand River. Although this might be what enables the lioness to ambush a leopard in the first place, it would be a simple matter for a startled leopard to race behind a palm thicket or get up a Matumi tree to escape. The thick vegetation probably has as many pros as cons to it.
- Leopards are quicker off the mark than lions. It is truly phenomenal how quickly a leopard can get up to top speed. We’re talking a few steps and it is bulleting along at well over 60km/h. Even the element of surprise from a lioness might not be enough to overcome the speed deficit between the two species.
Watch this video of the most recent sighting of the two:
The Flat Rock male was found first, moving out of the river to investigate some vultures in a tree. Soon after, the lioness emerged, heading in the same direction. A herd of impalas saw her and started alarming, which brought the leopard running in. It looked like he actually saw the lioness but must have presumed from a distance that she was another leopard. You see him suddenly stop in his tracks and do a hasty 180!
The lioness lay in the shade for awhile after she had treed the leopard, before eventually moving away down towards the river, allowing him to come down and scuttle to safety.
With summer upon us and the bush thickening up once more, visibility is reduced and the flowing Sand River is funnelling its attendant predators along narrow channels and game paths. Let’s hope that by the time the dry season rolls round again the Flat Rock is still that one step ahead of his nemesis…