It was a cool, overcast afternoon here at Londolozi when a few of us rangers headed out into the field with the newest group of trainee rangers. Gloomy afternoons are often not the greatest for game viewing as the animals are generally huddled up and keeping warm, hidden from obvious view. Nonetheless, we try to spend as much time out in the field with the latest intake of rangers to familiarise them with the reserve and the creatures and features that one may come across. Our expectations were low, we took a chance and headed down into the central parts of the reserve to see what we could find.
A first sight of pained dogs
We had been driving for about 30 minutes and had just left a large elephant bull feeding. We rounded the corner and spotted the unmistakable paddle-shaped ears of wild dogs lying in the long grass around us! This came as a huge surprise as they hadn’t been found for a few days. The dogs had somehow made their way right into the middle of Londolozi without our team finding so much as a track. We were over the moon. Wild dogs are always a special sight but for most of the trainee ranger group, it was the first time they had seen these endangered predators since arriving here in mid-January.
As we drove a little closer we saw that the wild dogs were starting to get a bit restless. They didn’t appear to be too full and had likely been unsuccessful in their hunting foray that morning. This may have accounted for their unexpected arrival in the area. Their hunger, coupled with the cooler weather meant that they could get moving rather soon and, just as we thought, a few minutes after finding them, they started trotting over the open crest. Anticipation levels were rather high as we knew we could be in for an exciting end to the afternoon watching the wild dogs hunt.
The chaos ensues
They led us down the open crest and into a dense combretum thicket where it became increasingly difficult to follow them, especially at the steady and consistent pace that they can move. We bounced around and managed to get through the thicket, catching the odd glimpse of a wild dog moving up ahead of us until we eventually arrived in another open clearing. Here, the wild dogs slowed down a bit, almost seeming to be giving some thought to their next move. This gave us the opportunity to drive around and position in front of them in the hope that they would come trotting past our vehicle. Just as we were doing so, a flash of activity caught our eye to the right. It was the Ximungwe Female leopard who had literally just burst out of the long grass and caught an impala in mid-air! We couldn’t believe our eyes.
Having been viewed by vehicles from an early age, this leopard is supremely relaxed around Land Rovers.
We drove closer to where we had seen the leopard and impala clash. They had both landed in back in the long grass and partially out of sight. As we laid eyes on them both again we saw the leopard was still in the process of suffocating the impala. Which isn’t always easy to watch but the fact that it is a rarely seen, we took it all in.
The wild dogs, who had essentially led us to the leopard, were still in sight, about 100 yards away now, still seemingly unaware of what we had just seen. If they had known that there was a leopard with a fresh impala kill nearby, there would have been a good chance that they would have come over to try to steal it from the leopard. However, the slope of the open crest that we were on, coupled with the long grass, obstructed the wild dogs’ view and they slowly continued to move on in the direction they had been moving. It was decision time for us; do we carry on following the wild dogs or do we stay with the Ximungwe Female and her fresh kill. We stuck with the latter as we watched the wild dogs enter the next thicket line.
A single cub of the Ximungwe Female's second litter. Initially rather skittish but is very relaxed now. Birth mark in his left eye.
A compounding marvel
Just as this was happening, one of the trainee rangers turned to our right and spotted another leopard arriving on the scene! It was the Ximungwe young male leopard who had obviously been patiently watching all the action unfold from a distance and now wanted to reap the benefits of a new, fresh meal. He sidled up alongside his mother who had now successfully killed the impala ram. A few minutes later, the Ximungwe Female gripped the impala in her jaws and began dragging it across the open crest.
Given it was starting to get quite dark, she would need to conceal the impala in some form of thick vegetation to begin feeding out of sight of any roaming hyena that might wander through. She dragged the impala for nearly two hundred meters – a remarkable display of strength and power – and eventually pulled it under a large-fruited bushwillow tree. With the majority of the hard work done, she stepped away from the carcass and allowed her adolescent cub to start feeding. This would assist her later on as it lightens the carcass, making it easier to hoist into a nearby tree where it would be most secure.
A mark of respect
The sun had now just set and darkness was covering the scene. As a show of sensitivity and respect, we prefer to not view leopards with kills on the ground at night with a spotlight. This puts unnecessary pressure on the leopards and makes it more likely that hyenas will be drawn in and steal the carcass. We made the decision to move on and return in the morning to see what had changed.
The next day we headed down to the same area and found the two leopards, full-bellied and comfortably lying in a Marula tree adjacent to where we had left them the night before. Overall, a successful hunt and feed for the leopards and a very successful, unique and enjoyable sighting for us to enjoy!