A day of the leopard.

Recently, we were lucky enough to travel again after quite some time stuck in our homes. The destination was the renowned MalaMala Private Game Reserve in the southern parts of the Greater Kruger National Park. The speciality here is no secret, it's all about the wildlife and with an emphasis on predators. Lions, leopard, wild dogs, hyena and even pretty good sightings of cheetah here and there. It truly is a wondrous place for folk to get up close and personal with the super predators of Africa in their natural habitat and behaving in their natural ways, maybe even the best place…

In this article we will articulate a short period of time with regards to one of these pre-mentioned carnivores from a bystanders perspective and in honor of its vivacious, sometimes tenacious and complex behavioral traits and relationships with other predatory species. It is only a moment in time with a handful of individuals but it certainly does shed insight to how fascinating this animal is and how exhilarating it is to view in the wild.

The leopard has walked the imaginations of wildlife enthusiasts and scientist for centuries. Much known for their elusiveness, beautiful spot patterns, unparalleled hunting strategy and fiercest character. The stories that testify to their unique lives and behavior are endless. Some stories of terror where the rare human has encountered and enraged leopard at the wrong time and mostly under unnatural circumstances, some stories of seemingly illogical attempts to attack or at least steal food from predators twice their size and countless stories of how charismatic these animals are when undisturbed by humans. In this one week at MalaMala we were able to witness a taste of some of these stories for ourselves.

The week started really well and when following up on a male leopard who had stashed a kill the day before in a tree, we found the immense animal still lingering in the area. He had, by now, attracted a ‘tag along’ in the form of a hyena that patiently waited below the tree for any scraps falling whilst the leopard fed. Hyenas can wait for days like this and this one was no exception, not leaving the base of the tree for the entirety of the day.

Having a stronger bite than a leopard and can even weigh more than most, it is an animal a leopard needs not get physical with as serious injury is guaranteed. However, this male leopard did not forsake the comfort of the shade on the ground because of his hungry audience and would simply jump past the hyena, snarl over his shoulder then get comfortable nearby, the hyena still drooling at the kill left in the tree. Interestingly these two, actually, seldom lock claws as the hyena has a vested interest in the leopard providing so many kills for hyenas to steal. It is said that up to 70 percent of leopard kills are stolen by hyenas in this area. However, after only receiving the odd fallen fragment of a rib or tuft of fur this hyena's chances at a decent meal were looking grim.

In the last hour of light, however, a loud thud was heard and a leg of the impala dislodged itself from the tree and comically struck the hyena right upon his head. Savoring the meal to come he slowly place his jaws around the femur and proceed to lift his head. Only to find a fully grown lioness at close proximity and at full gallop in his direction. Knowing he would lose that battle every time the hyena dashed with the leg in his mouth in a desperate attempt to escape with what he had waited so long for; but to no avail. After hearing the squeals of the hyena being disciplined in lion code of conduct, the lioness shortly returned with the leg and inhaled it with a few mouth fulls. The leopard, barely battered an eyelid at what was happening below him. Even with the younger lion, who showed up minutes later, rushing the tree and attempting to climb, the leopard knew his strengths and knew the lions weaknesses. Soon the lioness lost interest and moved off allowing the big male to finish his kill, descend the tree and walk off to the river to quench his thirst, tail high.

Some days later we stumbled upon another leopard with an unfortunate impala resting, eternally, within the super branches of a sausage tree along the banks of the sand river. We followed her back from the river after a pre-feed break and a drink only to notice her behavior suddenly and drastically change. Her body stiffened, tail went low and ears back; staring into nearby bushes. After a short while a large male leopard was seen slinking in the undergrowth. Without much in the way of social justice amongst leopard it is common practice for large males to steal from their smaller female counterparts. This, he quickly did... and with a roar rushed to the tree and took over his steal. For any normal thinking animal this would be ‘game over’ and one would assume the female would have more luck just hunting another impala and saving her the thrashing they would come in attempting to steal her kill back. Leopard, however, have too much pride to accept defeat so easily and the female crept around the tree, quietly, sussing. 

After assuming his new title in the tree of plenty the male presumed to get himself comfortable and take his eye off the lingering female, whom had positioned herself in a tall yet precarious adjacent tree to watch her kill start to shrink with every mouthful from the male. As soon as it started to look like she was at a loss, the male drifted just far enough for her to make her move and she leapt across the gaps between the two trees and into the one which had her kill. The male, on the ground now, turned to see what was happening and roared in anger while charging back towards the tree at lightning speed. The female, the Nkonveni female, had timed it perfectly though and in an unprecedented manor raced through the branches, seized her kill in her mouth and then traced her steps back, now with about 40 kilograms of impala and falling legs catching every branch she jumped passed, illustrating the power of these animals. With an angry male in tow she dragged that impala through the canopy of the tree, jumped across the gap into the adjacent tree and then forced it up to its pre-determined yet precariously sparse canopy. Knowing full well it could hold her but the more brutish male would battle to reach her.

After at least a dozen loops around the base of the tree growling and roaring in resentment at the new victor the male had to accept defeat and left the area, tail down.

There were many more sighting of leopard during the week. Some slept, some walked, some played, some hunted, these two sightings were only a prolonged and exciting ceremony worthy of describing in depth as it depicted the enchanting paradox that is the leopard; tenacious and bold, terrifying and beautiful.

Andrew Danckwerts.

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