We had been following the leopard for some time, at a discreet distance. . He was a magnificent young male, fully grown.
Finally, he stopped under the tree, sniffed around and sprawled out It looked like he was settling in for a midday nap.
As we watched, a group of three hyenas came into view, across an open field, maybe a hundred meters distant. Two females in the lead with a lone male following behind.
The leopard saw them immediately and crouched, watching intently. At first, the hyenas did not catch the scent, but suddenly the lead female stopped, nose in the air and looked in our direction, where we were sitting in our Land Rover, twenty meters from the leopard. Immediately, she turned and started in our direction.
“Watch this,” the ranger said. “The hyenas will come over to see if the leopard has a kill that they can steal from him.”
The leopard continued to watch, and when the hyenas came within a few yards, he went up the tree, climbing quickly and effortlessly.
It happened in a flash, too fast for me to catch the action with my camera. In a few seconds, the leopard was standing on a limb twenty feet above us, looking down at the hyenas with bared teeth.
The hyenas ignored him, searched the area quickly and, finding no kill, were on their way.
The leopard continued to watch until they were out of sight. Then, twenty feet above the ground, he traversed a limb to an adjacent tree, making this daring acrobatic move with total grace and confidence.
He then descended to an outcropping stub right in front of us, about ten feet above the ground. There he stood in a beautiful pose as I snapped pictures.
I joked with the ranger, “Do I need to pay him a hundred Rand for his modeling services?”
Finally, deciding the coast was clear, he leaped to the ground in a single bound and settled down again.
I quizzed the ranger. “Why did the leopard flee from the hyenas? He is obviously much bigger and stronger.”
He answered in his clipped and slightly musical African-accented English, “There’s nothing in it for him. If he is injured in the fight and can’t hunt, he is finished. The hyenas are not a food source for him. There is no reason for him to take the risk of injury. Hyenas are pack animals, scavengers. If a hyena is injured in the fight, the others in the pack can still provide food for her. She has a better chance of survival. So for her, the confrontation is worth the risk.”
It was one of many lessons I learned in my two weeks in Africa. Leopards are loners. They live solitary lives, except during breeding season. Their survival depends completely on their hunting ability. Even a minor injury that slowed them down could mean a slow and painful death by starvation.
We were staying at a private game preserve called Singita (Sin-GEE-Tah) in South Africa, in an area called Sabi Sands, renowned for its abundant wildlife, particularly big cats…lions, leopards and cheetahs. The preserves typically provide five-star accommodations and food, plus two game “drives” a day, one in the early morning, the other late afternoon until dark. These are the times when the animals are most active and easiest to find. The game drives usually last around two hours, but can vary depending on the success of the drive. The animals have become accustomed to the Land Rovers and generally ignore them completely, so the drives give the passengers a unique opportunity to view the animals in a truly wild setting, not confined or contrived, as in a zoo or even a wild animal park.
Earlier we had stayed at Leopard Hills, another private preserve, where we watched two young male elephants trunk wrestling.
“Juvenile delinquents!” the ranger declared.
Suddenly, one of them turned, trumpeted loudly and charged our vehicle. We were petrified as this five-ton behemoth bore down on us. He came to a sliding halt, just a few feet away, enveloping us in a cloud of dust, glaring at us and trumpeting. With his ears extended, he looked huge and menacing.
The ranger just laughed. “If he had been serious, he would not have trumpeted and put his ears out. Those are intimidation tactics. He is just bluffing.” After a few minutes, he got bored with us and drifted off to join his buddy for more wrestling.
Every drive brought new wonders. There were several prides of lions in the area, and we spent a lot of time watching interaction between pride members. When the pride goes out on a hunt, one lioness remains behind to baby-sit the cubs.
When the pride is reunited, it’s like a family reunion.
The affection they show for each other makes it hard to believe that such gentle and social creatures could be such efficient killing machines. They share that dichotomy with humans, except that they only kill for food.
Lion cubs have to be among the most entertaining animals to watch. Like kittens, everything is a toy, and roughhousing is constant. We watched two cubs climb a low-hanging branch. The younger one was only three months old, and his climbing skills were not yet developed. The older one, around five months, climbed out on the limb and the two of them proceeded to play, “If you climb up, I’ll push you off.”
We watched them for at least a half hour, while the mothers napped, ignoring us completely. Most of the time, prides are made up of lionesses and cubs only. The male only hangs around if a female is in estrus. In this case, the male was a few hundred feet away, sleeping soundly in the shade of a large tree.
“One of the females must be close to estrus,” the ranger observed. We couldn’t tell which one.
This was my first trip to Africa, in 2003. Since then, I have made several more, and each time I have enjoyed it immensely. I am afraid I am hooked. I will continue to go there as long as I am able.