/səˈspɛns/ noun: a state or feeling of excited or anxious uncertainty about what may happen.
Mason Cooley said that suspense combines curiosity with fear and pulls them up a rising slope. Although he may have been referring to the suspense delivered in writing novels, on this day this quote couldn’t hold more true. The rising slope though was a Marula tree.
The Nkoveni Female Leopard had made an impala kill and had hoisted it in a Marula tree. She was seen feeding on it with her two cubs earlier that morning. We were unable to get there so made it our plan for the afternoon. Arriving there we found that one of the cubs was at the base of a Torchwood tree about 15 metres from the Marula tree where the Nkoveni Female and the other cub were. All three leopards had very full bellies and a large hyena lay patiently at the base of the Marula awaiting any scraps.
It is no secret that a hyena would readily kill a leopard cub for a quick meal, something which none of us would like to witness. This is where nature can be cruel and one has to be as sensitive as possible not to influence the dynamics between these animals.
Hyenas will often scavenge at the base of a tree when the kill is hoisted by a leopard.
The cub on the ground did have a vantage point and enough distance to allow it to react if the hyena had to make an advance towards it. There was however, a Jacklaberry tree just next to the Torchwood that the cub could easily make his escape into. We sat and enjoyed the last of the sunset disappearing behind the Marula tree as the Nkoveni Female lay asleep. The one cub in the tree became increasingly restless and caught the attention of the cub on the ground.
One of the cubs sits at the base of a Torchwood tree, eagerly staring at its mother and sibling in a Marula tree nearby
A young female that lives to the east and south of camp. Easily recognised by her 2:2 spot pattern she is often to be found in Marula trees.
I searched the canopy of the tree for any scraps of the impala carcass that the hyena was waiting for but nothing remained. I’m assuming that the hyena did not know this and lurked close by just in case there might be something to devour, preventing the trio of leopards from reuniting. Adding to this delay in union, the Nkoveni Female lay there sleeping with little sign of getting active anytime soon. The one cub kept climbing over her while licking her as it became more impatient with the lack of response from its mother.
The one cub licking its mother in an attempt to wake her up by climbing over her and grooming her.
Suddenly, the cub on the ground stood up and its gaze became fixated on the Marula tree. One could see its desire to get to its sibling and mother.
The cub is ready to make its advance towards the tree to join its mother and sibling
The cub very cautiously began to loop around the back of our vehicle. The hyena which still lay about four metres from the base of the tree, could wake up at any minute and go after the cub. Unaware of any of this happening the mother’s eyes were still closed. The grass was long providing the cub reasonable cover and not too far from its right was a Red Bushwillow, big enough for it to climb.
We felt fear knowing that the Nkoveni Female was not aware that this cub had begun to approach the tree and it had quite the distance to cover with few trees to scale if needed as it moved closer. The hyena would get to the cub too fast for the mother to be able to react or do anything.
We were also curious: what would happen? The cub could maybe cover the distance, but what about the attempted climb? There was no room for error. At this point we had to sit tight as any movement by us would affect this sighting regardless of what the outcome would be.
It was an interesting parallax to be in as there was no answer I could give as to what would happen next. Looking back at the situation, maybe the Nkoveni Female did know the cub was making its way to the tree and didn’t want to lift her head up to alert the hyena. The only solace I had and could give my guests was that these cubs had survived this long and knew the threat of hyenas, they also had natural instincts and over the past months practiced climbing up and down many trees.
And so the cub proceeded to advance towards the tree, each paw expertly placed directly where the other paw had been. Carefully. Slowly. Precisely. Purposefully.
The hyena and Nkoveni Female unmoved. The stalking and precision of this cub was fascinating and quite honestly breathtaking. Captivated by the scene, we waited anxiously for every movement. Silence surrounded us, with the occasional muffled words of encouragement in between bouts of holding our breath. It is these stalking skills that ensure the survival of a leopard out here and the ability to sneak up on prey. For this cub, it was being able to get to the tree undetected. For us, it was like time slowed down as all of us were rooting for the cub, but had absolutely no part to play except waiting on the outskirts and watching.
The distance covered was about 15 metres and the time taken felt like an eternity. The fear of possibly seeing a leopard cub get killed was exhausting and we sat fixated on every step this cub took. Six minutes and 47 seconds later, to be exact, the cub got to the base of the tree. We couldn’t see anything at this point and just waited…
One minute and 35 seconds later…
It made a leap and began to climb the tree. Sheer relief engulfed my vehicle with awkward whispered cheers and fist pumps. It made it!
It’s sometimes hard to convey the feeling of a sighting through words so you may need to use a little imagination. This isn’t a blog about the story itself, but rather a note on how various sightings can make us feel. This cub managed to stalk its way silently, completely undetected by the hyena. At such a young age it was remarkable to see this cub practice these valuable skills needed to hunt one day and use them in an arguably life or death situation. After getting back to camp and the adrenaline having worn off, it was a gentle reminder as to how quickly everything can change out there. How sometimes the suspense of it all is what keeps you reeling in every sighting. Mason Cooley certainly was right it was the combination of curiosity and fear that keeps you in suspense.