A blood-curdling squeal ripped our attention away from the leopard tracks we were examining. What in the world was that? Was that a distress call? Heavy footsteps brought Tracker Judas bearing down on me. Panting, he shouted “Boetie, famba, famba!” (Brother, Go, Go!).
I spun the vehicle round, crushing the now not-so-important leopard tracks, shouting “Hold on!”
First… Second… Third gear… Dust whirled up behind us as we raced in the direction of the noise. Where did it come from? Kill the engine. Listen… Nothing.
Then “Squeeeeeeeaaalll!!” Squeeeeeaaalll!!” That way!!
“Famba, Famba Boetie!” Shifting the Land Rover into low range we cracked over dead branches, off-road now down into a dry river bed.
Cut engine. Listen. “Squeeeeaaal!”. That way! Go! The energy on the vehicle was tangible. I had said to my guests that it sounded like a warthog distress call, but other than that I had to do very little explaining as the sounds – coming from the undergrowth somewhere up ahead – were something everyone could understand. Something was being killed.
“There!” shouted a guests from the back seat. “There is something moving, it looks like a hyena”. We peered through the thick vegetation trying to get closer to the movement. Then, something grey! A warthog! It was standing next to the hyena. The squealing was definitely coming from the warthog. There was still not a good view from where we were so we doubled back around into the dry river bed. Downstream there was an open gap to get a full view of the action. As the branches and leaves gave way we saw the hyena still standing next to the warthog holding it in its jaws. Then Judas shouted “Leopard! Right in front of our vehicle was a leopard crouching and snarling at the hyena.
Without wasting much time the hyena – lacking sharp, gripping claws – held the rump of the warthog with locked jaws, knelt its front leg into the flank of the hog, forcing it onto its side, and started tearing into it. We sat mesmerized, unable to take our eyes off the gruesome scene. Hyenas have some of the most powerful jaws in the animal kingdom which makes them extremely efficient and successful scavengers. Hunting occasionally in groups they are successful, but without cat-like claws hunting alone is difficult and so they rely mostly on stolen or discarded carcasses as a food source.
Once the dust had settled and I had the attention of the vehicle, Judas and I explained what must have happened. Being evening time, the warthog was probably on its way back to its burrow for the night when it was caught. The captor would most likely have been the young male leopard. These would have been the initial squeals we had heard.
It was a female warthog and they normally travel in small family groups. A lot of noise would have been made, perhaps not only by the captured warthog, but the others too. This commotion would have alerted the right-place-right-time hyena who would have stormed in head held high, tail flaring in its most aggressive stance, knowing a potential scavenge was imminent. The domineering body language from the hyena was obviously too much for the young leopard who would have submitted its prey. Had he been a slightly more mature and experienced male leopard, it would more likely have stood his ground against the one hyena.
The hyena made quick work of the warthog and in a matter of minutes had consumed just under half of the animal while the leopard waited patiently nearby. Every now and again the leopard would come stalking closer trying not to be noticed, only to have the hyena come charging at it sending it into retreat. We expected the hyena to stay until the kill was finished or until another hyena showed up. But then, for reasons I cannot explain, the hyena looked up and walked off. The leopard, seizing the opportunity, crept in, gripped the carcass in its jaws and ran it up a nearby tree out of reach of the hyena. The hyena returned looking slightly puzzled and started chewing on whatever remained on the ground. The leopard could now feed in peace.
We had spent two days looking for leopard and were ecstatic that in fading light on the second day we had been granted this long-awaited, exciting sighting.