During training we were taught to stop and switch off the engine as much as possible, whether it was for tiny insects, birds or even just a scenic view of the landscape. This allows us to see things we would miss whilst we were moving, and to listen to the bush which often gives away the presence of the animals you are searching for through alarm calls, their territorial roaring, branches breaking or the frenzied chatter of a group of oxpeckers.
So when I drove past a Lilac-breasted Roller recently and it didn’t fly away I reversed, switched off the engine and pointed the beautiful bird out to my guests. While they took pictures I had the opportunity to scan the lush bush sprawled out in front of us. Something caught my eye on the distant crest hill which I pointed out to tracker Jerry Hambana on the front seat. After we both zoned in through our binoculars, Jerry turned around and confirmed what I had initially thought: it was a leopard!
It was the Mashaba female lying on a fallen over Marula tree, in an open clearing while giraffes, impalas and zebra mingled on the crest not too far away. Spectacular!
The sighting became even better as she stretched, groomed herself, clawed on the flaking trunk and then jumped down to scent mark at intermittent spots while she began patrolling.
We looped ahead of her, giving her space as she made her way through a thicket.
As I manoeuvred around a termite mound a family of warthogs suddenly exploded from a burrow in the mound’s side. I switched off immediately and we watched two adult warthogs and what I assumed were all of the piglets sprinting in the opposite direction to us and the leopard.
When I looked up to see what the Mashaba female was doing she was oddly facing away from where the warthogs had just run and that was when we heard the unmistakable squeal of a warthog that had been caught.
The leopard started running towards where the sound had come from so I immediately started the engine and we followed as quickly as we could. At this point we didn’t know what had caused the warthog to squeal as it seemed that the Mashaba female hadn’t even known the warthogs were there. But then as I drove around a thicket we discovered what had caused the commotion.
There stood the Senegal Bush male facing us with a warthog piglet in his jaws.
We were shocked at the abrupt introduction of another leopard into the sighting and just as I was trying to fill everyone in as to what was happening, the Mashaba female appeared.
She was low to the ground, stalking the Senegal Bush male through the long grass. When she got to within ten metres of him he heard her and turned suddenly, dropping the dead piglet and facing off with the Mashaba female. The much smaller female’s body language changed immediately. She stood upright and started chuffing (short sharp exhales through the nostrils) which is a sign of submission. The Senegal Bush male didn’t accept her attempts at trying to placate him and began walking towards her. Before I knew it a raucous growl emanated from the Senegal Bush male and he leaped at the Mashaba female. She reacted quickly by launching herself up a Marula tree with him right on her heels. Luckily for the female, the much bulkier male stopped half way up to the canopy, still growling, while she balanced dextrously in the swaying branches higher up.
After a short while the Senegal Bush male came down back to his warthog piglet kill. He was breathing heavily so didn’t begin feeding straight away but carried on staring at the Mashaba female whilst snarling at her every time she attempted to flee from her uncomfortable safe zone. No matter how much the Mashaba female chuffed, the Senegal Bush males’ aggression wasn’t being diffused. Fifteen minutes passed by with the deadlock unchanged until a large hyena who had obviously heard the commotion entered the fray. As it spotted the Senegal Bush male it started running towards him, eager to scavenge a potential meal. The Senegal Bush male wasted no time as he grabbed the warthog piglet and went for the nearest tree, which happened to be the same one that the Mashaba female was still stuck in!
We watched in silent disbelief as the sun set behind us with the Senegal Bush male now feeding on his kill while the Mashaba female continued to chuff at him.
Eventually the Senegal Bush male became so preoccupied with his meal that the Mashaba female was able to slip past him (not without a half-hearted snarl from him) and walk off into the darkness. He continued eating until there was hardly anything left. Whatever remains there were, fell to the ground where the patient hyena snaffled it up. The Senegal Bush male then also came down from the tree and disappeared into the night. My guests and I looked at each other in disbelief at what had just transpired in front of us, grateful that we were able to witness the entire story unfold before us.
As we made our way home all I could think of was how it had all started just by stopping to appreciate a beautiful but common Lilac-breasted Roller and it made me realise how different our afternoon would have been if we didn’t take a moment to stop, look and listen…