I remember a sighting in which I was sitting parked with my guests, watching the Tutlwa female leopard on the opposite river bank to the Londolozi Camps. She was moving through the long grass of summer, stopping occasionally to raise her head and scan.
After about 30 minutes of fruitless wandering, she eventually just lay down and started grooming herself.
Suddenly the thunder of hooves roused her, and as we all – leopard included – looked towards the hill crest, a huge herd of what must have been well over a hundred impala came hurtling towards us.
An enigmatic female not often encountered, this leopard lives to the north of the Sand River.
“This is it, she’s going to get one for sure!”, I exclaimed to the guests as the herd rushed down upon us, breaking around our vehicle. We were fairly sure they were fleeing from a pack of wild dogs, as impala only run in that panicked fashion when the canids are after them.
Whatever their reason, the antelope split into two waves on either side of the leopard as she crouched, coiled like a puff-adder. We were all highly keyed-up on the vehicle, fingers on shutter buttons ready for the strike, impact, and National Geographic-worthy photos we were surely going to get.
And then… nothing….
The herd careened off into the distance, with the leopard looking side to side and then simply lying down again.
We couldn’t understand it. She had had the perfect opportunity to catch any one of the impalas, but hadn’t even deigned to make a rush at any of them.
Discussing it around the fire later, we came to the conclusion that what looked like a perfect hunting opportunity to us wasn’t necessarily so for the leopard. Knowing full well what her own capabilities were, she wasn’t going to make a move until she was confident of success. The fact that the impala came charging seemingly out of nowhere clearly caught her off guard, and whilst leopards are opportunists, quickly recognising when there’s a good chance of a meal, they also know when to stand down. The impala were running at full speed past her, and although a little risk is often necessary in a hunt, there are more factors at play than we will ever be able to fathom, and the predator itself will almost always know best. Many is the time that we see one of the big cats decide against an approach, and although we might be left scratching our heads as to why, they have their reasons.
The reason was perfectly clear for the Nkoveni young female recently as she decided not to try and fish a warthog boar out of his burrow. She was found by Ranger Sean Zeederberg and Tracker Joy Mathebula, and as they followed her she began sniffing around a prominent termite mound, looking repeatedly towards a large hole in the side of it.
Joy and Sean quickly came to the conclusion that there was most likely a warthog in the burrow, as they could hear what sounded like scratching or snuffling coming from within, but as we reported recently, leopards don’t always have things their own way when it comes to warthogs. The large size and sharp tusks of the ‘hogs often make them a bit too much for even the incredibly powerful leopards to handle. Although her power-to-weight ratio is probably impressive, the Nkoveni young female wasn’t rushing into anything this time; she is still small, and the warthog that eventually stuck his head above ground was a male with one enormous tusk (the other had probably been snapped in a fight), and he would almost certainly have been out of the young leopard’s league:
Granted, the boar almost certainly realised something was up, and wasn’t showing himself more than was necessary. You can see how he carefully sticks his head up at first, becoming slightly more emboldened a little later on as nothing happens. A big male leopard might have dived on him, but I imagine the Nkoveni young female was simply watching to see what would develop; for all she knew a sounder of piglets might have come bursting out of the burrow. Eventually the warhog was probably too suspicious, and retreated back underground, and the young leopard moved off.
Every single encounter like this is a learning experience in a leopard’s life, and who knows, maybe one day in the future the warthog population of central Londolozi will hit a steep downward curve because of what the Nkoveni young female has learnt…