We were stopped admiring a beautiful dead Leadwood tree with a trunk so wide it must have been hundreds of years old. The morning light lit up the weathered silvery waves of wood that streamed down its trunk. Squirrels and dwarf mongooses basked in the warm winter sun’s rays that had just broken the horizon.
A kudu’s bark broke the silence. It was a warning call and could only mean one thing; the kudu had seen danger. Kudu are the largest antelope seen at Londolozi and will only sound the alarm if they see a large predator, usually leopard or lion.
We bee-lined for where we had heard the kudus. Hoping the threat was still nearby, we neared the herd, trying to catch a glimpse of a predator. They alarmed again right next to us. There is something quite awe-inspiring when sitting right next to a kudu when it alarm calls. It is deafening! It makes one jump with fright every time it happens.
Two other Londolozi ranger-and-tracker pairs with their guests were in the area and between us we quickly managed to find what was upsetting the kudu; a female leopard. She was moving quite steadily south, trying to escape the attention of the big antelope that were still barking. On being spotted, leopards will usually avoid prey as the element of surprise has been lost, and even if they were not hunting, the alarm calls may attract the unwanted attention of other predators, like hyena or even lion.
We followed for a while until the leopard headed straight into a densely vegetated river bank. We decided to loop around and drive upstream in the open, dry riverbed to where she was seen headed. With help from Ranger Shaun D’Araujo waiting on the bank where she was last seen, we were guided to roughly where he thought she may pop out on the sand-bottomed river bed.
As we slowly made our way upstream hoping to spot the leopard we noticed something in a tree over hanging the riverbed. I quickly lifted my binoculars and to my surprise it was another leopard feeding on something. The leopard looked small through the branches, but I initially thought that might be an optical illusion because of the view. As we edged around the bend in the river we got full view of a leopard cub chewing on what was left of an impala ram head. We could not believe our luck!
We sat and watched for a few minutes looking around to see if we could see the mother when into the riverbed walked the first female leopard who we knew not to be the mother. She headed straight for the tree where the cub was feeding, and the cub upon seeing this unfamiliar leopard, shot up into the very top branches of the magnificent Weeping Boer Bean tree. Then out of the shadows appeared the notably smaller mother who stood her ground at the base of the tree, growling. Female leopards may kill cubs that are not their own as they compete for territory and food resources, although it isn’t well documented. We recognized the mother to be the Ndzanzeni female trying to protect her cub (and protect her almost-finished impala kill) from the larger Mashaba female.
This female is a success story all in herself, being born as a single cub to the Dudley Riverbank female in early 2012.
The Mashaba female is currently Londolozi’s best known leopard. Her relaxed nature means she is comfortable around the camps and vehicles.
Watch this incredibly tense moment as they stood inches from each other growling before erupting into a brief fight:
The female intruder clearly showed her dominance as, after the scuffle, she pushed past the mother and ascended the tree. We feared the worst as she went straight up after the cub. To our relief she turned back down the tree shortly before reaching it, seemingly uninterested in the cub. Perhaps she was just after the kill, which in all the commotion had dropped out of the tree into the long grass. Both adults eventually descended the tree leaving the cub still clinging to the extremities of the tree canopy. They continued to growl and keep an eye on each other until the Mashaba female eventually left.
I had a few questions after this sighting. Had the Mashaba female known that the Ndzanzeni female and her cub had a kill in the area? Had she smelt it out? From where we first found her when the kudu were alarming, she had walked a straight line for about 400m directly to where the kill was. Perhaps another animal had alarmed at the mother leopard and cub and she had gone to investigate. Or was it all just by chance?
And why had she run up the tree after the cub with such intent only to turn back? She could easily have caught the cub and killed it.
Whatever the reasons, we were relieved all had ended well and could not believe what we had been so lucky to witness. As we drove away we decided we best stop for a coffee break to calm the nerves and relive the excitement. Which we did again… and again… and again…
Filmed by Londolozi Guest Patrick Rowell