With the weather in the afternoon being slightly cooler now, we left camp earlier than usual as we wanted to make the most of the afternoon with the hopes animals will be moving around a little more than usual. Our initial plan was to head into the southern reaches of Londolozi in search of the Ndzandzeni female. My guests are repeat guests of Londolozi and had not seen this particular female in recent visits. What we didn’t know was that our plan was going to change drastically.
It was no longer than 15 minutes after leaving camp, that tracker Shadrack Mkhabela pulled off the most incredible spot of a cheetah sitting on top of a termite mound 300m away. Initially it was only a few spots in the dappled light that caught his attention and gave away the cheetah’s position. Our excitement levels started to rise having spent the entire previous afternoon searching for these elusive cats. As we got closer, we realized it was the female cheetah and her two sub-adult cubs using a termite mound as a vantage point.
The excitement and relief that we had finally found them were substantial. With the high populations of other predators such as lion, leopard, and hyena, cheetahs are outcompeted. This smaller population of cheetah is often difficult to find. With that being said these three have been extremely successful in avoiding any major threats thus far, what we didn’t know was things were going to take a dramatic turn.
Initially seen as a young male in 2016, this leopard only properly established territory on Londolozi in mid-2019
We had been sitting with them for well over an hour when one of the other guides found the Senegal bush male leopard no more than 200m away from where the cheetahs were. Unbeknown to neither the cheetahs nor the leopard they were just about to bump into each other. One can only imagine how our anxiety levels were skyrocketing with bursts of excitement in between. Within seconds, everything erupted. The three cheetahs launched off the termite mound, the male leopard in pursuit of them at full speed. Gentle whispers of encouragement “run cheetah, run” came from my guests who are now on the edge of their seats as the four animals ran circles around each other.
The leopard did not waste any time charging at the cheetah, asserting his dominance, racing after them in short bursts, the cheetahs scattered in all different directions. As they ran the cheetah released sounds that I have personally never heard before. A high-pitched growling, whining type of noise. After gathering themselves, the cheetahs attempted to create some confusion by charging in from different angles at the leopard, knowing that they could probably outrun him.
Although cheetahs are undoubtedly faster than a leopard at top speed, leopards are a close contender over the first 40m-50m due to the fact that they are quick off the mark which can be to cheetah’s demise if not careful. In this case, they were ensuring a safe distance away from the leopard. We could not believe the sequence of events, from a calm docile afternoon to absolute mayhem in such a short space of time. We so often speak about this rivalry between two apex predators and one would only think three cheetahs would hold their own against one leopard but that certainly was not the case.
After watching all the chaos unfold for well over 20 minutes, things slowly started calming down. The cheetah continued to make high-pitched calls while circling the leopard from a distance. By this point, the leopard had lost interest and with his nose glued to the ground, he followed the cheetahs’ scent back up the mound to where they were initially sitting.
These types of interactions are not something we get to see all too often but something that is exhilarating and memorable. We are grateful that this incredible sighting did not have a tragic end for any of the animals and that we were there to witness the whole thing. There is so much excitement and opportunity around every corner, making the bush so unpredictable…we just don’t know what to expect.