On a recent afternoon, we set off in search of leopard. Fortune would have it that we had some strong leads to follow in that a group of guests that were driving into Londolozi during the midday bumped into a female leopard walking along the main road.
Not only that but, shortly before we set off for our afternoon game drive, a couple of the trackers saw a male leopard stroll past, just outside the camp boundary, heading in the same direction that the female was seen earlier.
Many of the textbooks will tell you that the big cats are more active during the evenings but it still isn’t unusual to see them moving about in the daylight hours; especially during the cooler winter days that we have been experiencing recently.
Initially seen as a young male in 2016, this leopard only properly established territory on Londolozi in mid-2019
Given these brief sightings between drives, we set off from camp that afternoon with a great deal of optimism. It wasn’t long until one of the vehicles saw tracks of the male and began to follow, along with two other vehicles, in hopes that he was still nearby. With others busy on the tracks of the male, ranger Barry Bath and I decided to focus on trying to find the female.
Luck was on our side and on the first road we took we spotted a hyena looking up into a Knobthorn tree. As we got closer we noticed that the female leopard was in the fork of the tree with a freshly killed impala draped between her legs.
Initially skittish she spent a lot of time in the Sand River, now relaxed she makes up the majority of leopard viewing west of camp.
It was the Nhlanguleni female, not far from where the guests had seen her earlier. Having just killed an impala and she had been forced up into the tree along with her bounty by a couple of hyena.
Fortunately for her, it was not a full-grown impala, but instead a yearling from the previous season which was light enough to pull into the tree with relative ease.
She was noticeably exhausted from the hunt and hoist and was breathing very heavily. With the hyenas still milling around the base of the tree, she had no option but to find a spot to rest in the branches where she uncomfortably positioned herself and fell into a deep sleep. My guests and I decided it would be worth our while to sit with her and wait to see if she started to feed, which we did.
While sitting there, we listened to the other vehicles’ radio chatter as they combed through the area where the male’s tracks had been seen earlier but after nearly two hours with no further signs of him, they eventually decided to give up the search. After a total of over two hours sitting with the female, who was still fast asleep in the branches, we decided to move on the see what else we could find.
I suggested that we maybe pass through the area where the male’s tracks had been seen, in the hopes that he might decide to reveal himself as the sun began to set.
It wasn’t even five minutes after we left the Nhlanguleni female that we got a call that the Senegal Bush Male had arrived and was about to rob the Nhlanguleni Female of her kill!
It must have been his tracks that the others were following earlier and he had now turned up at the site of the kill.
We turned around and raced back towards the Knobthorn to then find the Senegal Bush Male in the fork of the tree feeding on the impala with the Nhlanguleni Female perched in the upper branches. With all the activity and feeding, the hyenas had returned to the base of the tree and were capitalising on the fallen pieces of meat that the Senegal Bush Male dropped. This inspired him to try to take the kill higher into the tree.
After repositioning the kill, the Nhlanguleni Female saw a gap down the tree which she took; scampering down through thin, thorny branches and off into the darkening night. We sat with the Senegal Bush Male who was now precariously perched on a small, dead branch which we all thought was going to break under his weight. However, it held as he continued to feed for a while until we eventually left to head back to camp for dinner.
We returned early the next morning and found that the dead branch had still not given way but that he was resting on a more sturdy one in a different part of the tree. It was still rather cold as the sun was rising but we knew that as things started to warm up that there was a good chance he would go and feed again. Sure enough, after 45 minutes, he started to shuffle around and returned the kill.
We sat watching him feed for some time during which, a report came through the radio that there was a lone lioness crossing the airstrip. We didn’t think too much of it and decided to stay where we were for the time being. We knew that given where we were there was a very slight chance that the lioness could stumble upon our sighting.
The noise of the Senegal Bush Male crunching through the bones and cartilage of the impala would carry far in the winter air and the lioness could hear it and come through to investigate.
Before we knew it a group of francolins was flushed from the grass as the lioness came trotting in towards the base of the tree. The hyenas who were still around all scattered and the Senegal Bush Male gripped the kill in his jaws and swiftly took it into the higher branches of the tree. We watched with bated breath to see if the lion would climb the tree, knowing very well that was not out of the question with the sighting of the Lioness and the Plaque Rock Female fresh in our minds. She circled it a few times while watching the leopard who was giving off low, deer growls towards the lioness.
After a few minutes, she decided that it wasn’t worth her efforts and started to move on, responding to calls of other lions which now sounds quite close by. The Senegal Bush Male started to settle down after realising that he had got away with not having his kill stolen or worse yet, his life threatened! He began to groom before continuing to feed. That afternoon we returned for the third time to close off the story and see what happened. Both he and the kill were no longer around most likely indicating that he finished it off and moved on.