Wildlife can be frustrating to photograph. I learnt this early on, after yet another exasperating sighting in which I had missed the best of the action.
Animals don’t always do what you expect. They are wild after all, and as much as you study their behaviour and can start to predict with a fair degree of confidence what they may do next, the reality is we aren’t in a studio, there are going to be bushes and grass in the way, the leopard might come the other way down the tree that logic would have suggested…
And one-year-old leopard cubs, still in the exploratory phase in which they chase every bird they see, and sniff under every bush, can be the toughest to predict.
We were sitting with the Nhlanguleni cubs recently, very close to Pioneer Camp, and the local monkey troop was kicking up a huge fuss from the treetops. Unperturbed by the incessant simian alarm calling, the two leopard sisters were walking slowly across a sodic sight, right in the open, and looked likely to settle down in the Gwarrie thicket as the temperature started to rise.
One cub stopped to groom itself while the second suddenly spun with its ears up, staring intently back into the thicket line. It scampered off and its sister settled down to wait.
Cubs of this age investigate everything under the sun, so we expected the cub to be back after it lost interest in whatever it had heard; probably a nyala, which would be a bit too big for the small leopard to tackle.
What we weren’t expecting was that the cub would come hurtling out within two minutes, on the tail of something small and furry that was running for its life, spurts of dust kicking up under its feet. It was a scrub hare, fleeing full tilt, right past the second cub who was still waiting patiently. I think the waiting cub got just as much of a fright as us, as it spun on a dime to instinctively try and take up the chase itself.
My camera was down, and I just managed to scramble to get a photo of the waiting cub turning; by the time I’d swung onto the cub that was doing the chasing, I’d messed up my focus, and by then she’d already pounced on the hare just behind a Gwarrie bush.
Immediately upon making the kill, the cub snapped up the carcass and trotted into the thick bush. Instinctive leopard behaviour at its best; get your kill under cover.
The second cub could only watch as her sister started practicing killing the hare all over again, tossing it in the air and pouncing on it in an endless pantomime.
If this had been a young lion making the kill, the rest of her pride – and certainly her sister – would have gone rushing in to share the meat. But leopards feed alone, and when the second cub made an attempt to sneak in and grab some of the hare, she was met with swift retribution; snarls and slashing claws from her sister that sounded like they should have come from a much larger leopard! The hungry cub was lucky to get away with only a minor scratch or two.
We left the two in the thickets, heading back to camp extremely encouraged by the hunting prowess that is being displayed by at least one of these young leopards. I’m sure it’s simply a matter of opportunity, and if she gets the chance, the second cub will be equally adept at the chase and takedown.
We’ve mentioned it before, but should these two sisters make it to independence (which seems likely), they will be the first intact litter to be raised on Londolozi since the Nhlanguleni female and her brother were forced into solitary life by their mother, about 7 years ago.
We’ll probably know in 6 months…