Leopards have to learn to hunt on their own. As cubs, their mother will leave them and go off hunting and, when old enough to eat meat, lead them to where she has stashed her kill. Eventually though, these cubs will be hunting prey as large as impala or even kudu, and to be proficient hunters, leopards need to gradually work their way up to prey this size. Practice is therefore key.
And practice can come in many forms. I have seen cubs led back to a kill and then attack it repeatedly as if killing it all over again. Pouncing and clawing at it.
Tree climbing and wrestling with a sibling or mother are also vital for improving strength and agility. This is all-important practice; however it’s the small animals like birds, squirrels, lizards and mice that are great for starters and are in my opinion the best prelude to moving onto hunting antelope. Probably the best one of all is the nimble scrub hare.
Recently James Tyrrell wrote a blog on the Nhlanguleni female’s cubs hunting a scrub hare.
We were lucky enough to recently witness the Nkoveni young female – who is roughly the same age as the aforementioned cubs – also show her developing hunting skills. As her and her mother slunk into a Guarrie thicket in fading evening light, francolins erupted and in the confusion a scrub hare was caught, squealing as the little leopard tossed it around, not killing it instantly. This went on for some time as the cub played with its food.
For many guests, seeing a kill is the holy grail of sightings. However, actually seeing one take place is sometimes not easy to watch. This was one of those cases as the hare continued to squeal. We discussed this behaviour and understood that this was important practice for the young leopard. By keeping the scrub hare alive and letting it go again, she gave herself several opportunities to practice recapturing it. On one such occasion of cat and mouse, the hare tried to escape toward our vehicle:
WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT
At one point tracker Judas says “This is the bush… sorry”. And he was absolutely right. This was nature in its rawest form. Energy transfer from one organism to another; in death comes new life in the form a leopard cub. And in this case, a young leopard learning to hunt refining its skill to one day provide for its own cubs.
A short while later we were approaching camp in the darkness when we bumped into three hyenas sniffing around next to the road. As we had them lit up in the spotlight a baby scrub hare hopped out of the bush next to them. The three hyenas went ballistic, tearing around this tiny hare trying to catch it. It was quite comical and we had to work hard to suppress a chuckle at the clumsy attempts of the hyenas fumbling around this small hare. Being so small it was not particularly fast, and at one point it looked as if hare was going to be a bite size snack to one hyena, but then for the second time that night a hare tried to dart under our vehicle to escape a predator. This time is was successful and shot under our Land Rover and disappeared. The hyenas lost interest pretty quickly and this hare was spared.
It had been an eventful afternoon and it was great to end the drive with a good laugh at the hyenas. Spirits were high as we pulled into camp and made our way into the BOMA for dinner as one of the guests joked that we might be served rabbit pie after the day we’d had.