Its no secret that luck plays a significant role in what you see on safari. It was no different this afternoon.
We set out from camp in cool, overcast conditions to go in search of the Inyathini male who, during the course of the day had been seen crossing our airstrip. Given that the strip is fairly close to camp we were soon in the area but struggled to find any further signs of him. The recent rains of a few days before had left the ground with a very hard crust of dry soil which makes tracking difficult. Fellow ranger Sean Zeederberg and I circled the vicinity of the airstrip and after nearly an hour still hadn’t had any luck.
Hope was dwindling as we drove through the last area that we would check before cutting our losses and heading further south. We were just exiting an open clearing which was full of a large herd of impala, all rather relaxed and going about their daily feeding. As we approached a small herd of four young rams feeding alongside a thicket, I turned to my guests to explain that we were going to move off to search for something else when I was suddenly interrupted by tracker Euce Madonsela banging his hand on the hood of the vehicle in excitement. “Leopard!” he said, looking back behind the Land Rover. In the same moment we all heard a distinct ‘THUD!’
Euce’s eyes went wide.
“IT’S GOT THE IMPALA!” he exclaimed.
As we had driven past the herd of rams, the leopard had exploded out of the nearby thicket behind the vehicle which had caught Euce’s eye. The ‘thud’ which we heard was the impact of the leopard cannoning into the impala at 70km/hr! Euce had seen it transpire from up front on the tracker’s seat while looking back past me and the guests!
I quickly reverse to watch the rest of the action unfold. The other impalas were frantically alarm-calling as the leopard now began to drag its victim back towards the thicket in an attempt to find some form of cover in case of approaching hyenas who, due to the alarms of the impala, would likely come into the area to investigate. It was at this moment that we identified the leopard to in fact be the Ximungwe female.
Wasting little time after first ensuring that the impala was dead, she began to drag the carcass towards a Saffron tree some 30 yards away. She arrived at the base of the trunk, clearly exhausted, and tried to catch her breath. It was incredible to see how her every move was so well calculated and thought out – you could see was a master in the business. While still breathing heavily she began to open up the carcass to remove the intestines. This reduces the weight of the impala, making it easier to pull up into the tree and makes sense for her to discard given that it is full of vegetation – not exactly what a hungry leopard is after.
During this entire time, she would keep re-positioning the impala around the base and gaze up into the Saffron, plotting her route into the branches. After about 10 minutes of feeding she began to attempt to get the carcass hoisted into the tree. Twice, she and the impala came crashing down. Not surprising given that the impala was still probably about the same weight as her! On her third attempt she successfully scaled the tree and placed her bounty in the web of branches.
Ensuring the carcass was secured safely, she glanced off into the thickets and began to give a light ‘chuffing’ sound. She was calling her sub-adult cub. She descended the tree and marched off in the direction that she had been looking. Not a minute later, the Ximungwe young male came bouncing out of the thicket in great excitement. He could smell the fresh blood around the mouth of his mother which caused him to bound with excitement as leaped around her.
The Ximungwe female then settled down in the clearing and began to groom herself. She refused to lead the youngster back to the kill but instead used the moment as opportunity to allow the young male a chance to sniff out and find the stashed kill himself. You could see his frustration as he would walk ahead and then turn back and leap onto his mother as she hung back, watching the young male learn.
Finally, he found the carcass and wasted no time in getting up into the tree to start feeding while the mother wondered off to a small wallow to have a drink of water. We watched him feed for a little while and then decided to move off to find a spot to enjoy the sunset. As we left the sighting and made our first turn Euce once again exclaimed, “There’s another leopard!”.
The Inyathini male – who we had set out to look for that afternoon – was perched on top of a termite mound about 150 yards away from the kill site!
Given all the commotion around the kill, he slowly began to amble on towards the Ximungwe female and her youngster, who was still in the tree feeding. The safety of the young cub was not a concern as we suspect the Inyathini male to likely be the father but we all wondered if he would decide to steal the meal altogether or allow the others to share it with him. Unbeknownst to us, a hyena had also moved towards the kill from the opposite direction and arrived at the scene at the same time that the Inyathini male did. The inexperienced cub, still up in the tree, somewhat panicked and dropped the carcass from the branches of the Saffron only for it to be snapped up by the hyena who bolted off, dragging it in his jaws.
The snarl at the cub from the Ximungwe female was evidence enough of her displeasure…