Ideally, we try to let the photos on our social media platforms tell the story more than we do the writing. There’s only so much one can say to try and encapsulate a moment or a feeling or an experience.
I was fortunate enough to recently spend the better part of three successive game drives following the Nhlanguleni female and her two cubs. A leopard sighting is not always action-packed. It can oscillate wildly between incredibly exciting and pretty uneventful as you wait for the next chapter to unfold. This latest experience was something similar, and I felt the photos would be far better employed to tell the story than any combination of words that I could string together:
The first evening. The Sand River was swollen and we were fortunate to have gotten across. Within two minutes of gaining the northern bank we had found the Nhlanguleni female lying on a dead log, watching a herd of impala in the distance. Her territory spans both north and south banks of the river, and she generally uses the larger boulders to hop her way across if the current is flowing strongly. The female moved from the log to a termite mound and was clearly waiting for darkness to fall before hunting, so we left her to it, not wanting to disturb her chances.
The next morning. One of the cubs was found by ranger Jess Shillaw and Tracker Advice Ngwenya, after they had seen an alert impala ram staring into the bushes. About 5 minutes after this cub had been found, a nearby drag-mark was followed into a deep riverbed, and a fresh impala kill was discovered in a thicket, with the Nhlanguleni female the suspected culprit. It seemed likely that the female would come to collect her cubs sometime during the morning. We just had to be patient.
While waiting with the cub for the Nhlanguleni female to come and fetch it to the kill – which we were convinced would happen soon – her white tail tip was spotted bobbing through the long grass and Red Bushwillow thickets as she looked for her cubs. She jumped up on a fallen Marula and began calling for them.
An elaborate greeting ritual followed the reunion of the mother and the first cub.
When a female comes to call her cubs to take them to a kill, one can see a perceptible lift in energy levels! The cubs can smell the blood on their mother’s whiskers and muzzle, and will often immediately start cavorting in the excitement of impending food. The cub on the left had taken a despairing dive at the cub on the right, but wisely pulled out of it as her sister lunged up behind this tree trunk. Ranger Sandros Sihlangu, tracker Exon Sibuyi and their guests watch from the background.
This young scrub hare simply got unlucky. When daylight comes, hares will retreat to forms – shallow scrapes under bushes – where they will shelter until nighttime, when they will re-emerge to feed. It just so happened that the Nhlanguleni female led her cubs right past where this one was sheltering, and its flight triggered an immediate pursuit response in the cub.
The cubs were up and down every fallen Marula in sight…
Ranger Jess Shillaw and tracker Advice Ngwenya had found the first cub that morning, so were thrilled at how the sighting kept getting better and better…
The leopards only went to the kill later in the morning, after the cub with the scrub hare had finished her meal, so we returned that evening at dusk to see if the female would hoist the impala. We couldn’t have timed it better, as we approached the site literally as she started dragging it to a nearby Knobthorn tree.
When leopards look up, get your camera ready; it’s as sure a sign as you can get that they are about to climb a tree. They establish the easiest route up first, then leap.
This particular Knobthorn was growing at a slant out of the riverbank, so presented a fairly simple climb for the Nhlanguleni female as she dragged the deadweight of the adult impala ewe carcass.
After a successful hoist, the female gave a last look around to check for danger. She glanced further up the tree a few times, presumably checking for more favourable positions to stash the kill, but ultimately opted not to move it further. A pity, as the next morning, tracks revealed that hyenas had stolen the carcass (its legs were dangling fairly low, within easy reach of a hyena), and the leopards had moved off.