Sometimes safari is not all about driving in the wilderness and ticking off the boxes, it is an endless journey of sight, hearing, smell & touch. It is that moment of finally seeing what you wanted to see, enriching your knowledge and awareness of animal interactions. Cheetah Plains Game reserve is one most untamed wilderness territories in Africa, where fauna and flora are abundant. In this scenario, we were searching for a specific interaction between the cats and prey species and we were all set for the results. After going out for days and nights, searching for the big cats, we finally managed to locate this large male leopard known as Quarantine, lying at the entrance of the Aardvark excavation – very quiet and focused.
This was a sign to me saying ‘there was an animal in the burrow, and I am waiting for this animal to emerge’. We were all so excited and felt like the day had come to witness the kill! One thing I know best, we can never ever able to guarantee any outcome of a hunt but can always predict the possible outcome from such interactions. On the other hand, we couldn’t tell which animal was in the hole and how big, etc. All we understood was the leopard was waiting for its prey to emerge out and so he could attempt to catch it.
Well, as I said, the clock kept ticking and ticking… there was no movement at all. We then decided to leave the leopard for a wonderful sundowner break, planning to return much later in the dark.
After sunset, we indeed resumed our mission as planned, heading back to the leopard sighting which had not changed. A few minutes after we were back at the sighting, the leopard started yawning, stretching and walked off. A few minutes later the leopard picked up another potential meal, the large herd of impala about one hundred meters away. He started to approach these antelopes with extreme caution. The wind was in his favor, the night was pitch dark and to further his advantage, Impalas were chasing each other around for their territorial issues. So it wasn’t that quiet, and this created a stunning opportunity for a leopard to approach even further. We were all set, well anticipated and hoping for the best to come, all lights off and only listening to the sounds of the bushveld!
At the same time, we could hear African Scops Owlet, Spotted Hyena and black-backed Jackals calling in the distance. The Milky Way was so clear and extremely bright. We all knew the Hyenas were out there, awake and on the patrol but still a distance away. We were a little worried about any possible interruptions.
After sitting in the dark for a few minutes without the white light, we could start to hear few things in detail. We could see the slight movements made by the herd of impala, jittering around in circles and snorting! Now, one leopard up against over fifty individuals, chances were high and of course he was going hit the nearest target. In a split second, the leopard launched for the individual and the only thing we heard was a brief, distress vocalizations uttered by the impala. With excitement I shouted…” He got it… he got it..” at the same time Sam (the tracker) put the light back on the leopard and he remarkably had one of the big Impala rams pinned down! With our silent electric cruiser, we cautiously approached the scene for clearer visual and indeed he has his teeth plunged on the impala’s jugular veins and was squashing the air-pipe to suffocate it.
There was no sign of the rest of the impalas, they all fled. The leopard held his grip on the impalas neck for about over 4 minutes, and the impala was successfully suffocated.
The leopard then started dragging the impala & stopped about 10 meters away from the original spot. He then looked around for suitable trees to keep it under or possibly hoist it, but unfortunately, he seemed too tired to drag further. Then he started feeding.
He quietly fed on the impala for about 45 minutes undisturbed. We could see the leopard also tried to avoid punching the rumen stock, as this would have expelled the gas from fermented plant material inside the impala digestive track. This kind of scent may attract other carnivores looking to scavenge.
After the leopard we well-fed, then started chewing bones, pulling out the intestines and he seemed to be less worried about any interruptions. It was smelly and loud, and we were expecting the uninvited guests to pitch in.
The impala carcass was almost half eaten and yet he showed no intentions to drag it off to a nearby tree. As much as we expected it, a lone hyena arrived, barging in & starting to feed on the carcass. To our surprise, the leopard didn’t surrender his kill, he continued eating and exchanged growls with spotted Hyena.
Although unusual, these two species were feeding side by side without excessive aggression. The hyena eventually crossed the proverbial line by attempting to feed on the fore quarter that the leopard was feeding on. This resulted in the leopard delivering a short, sharp whack to the hyenas face. The Hyena responded with a loud squeal and backing down slightly.
It was incredible to witness how the leopard held his own on the carcass, as they will often lose their kills to hyenas. He carried on feeding until he was engorged, and then ambled off a few meters away while watching the hyena feed.
Eventually the hyena, who was now incredibly well fed, grabbed the lungs of the impala & trudged off into the night. The leopard took the remains of the kill and hoisted it up a nearby leadwood tree which he was still feeding on the following morning.
Our guests were in absolute awe of what we had just witnessed, not only a successful hunt with one of the most sought after predators in our region, but behaviour at the kill that was a first for me too!
We slowly headed back to camp with the excitement of what the safari had delivered overflowing.
Images, text & video by Sipps Maswanganyi