But for a few notable exceptions, animals are not known for their problem solving abilities. Most rely on primeval instinct that has been passed on to them through generation after generation. The knowledge of what to do and when is as natural for them as is taking their next breath. This instinct courses through their veins like a river and they react to stimuli without thought and without control. One urge overrides all others in the natural world however and that is maternal instinct: the need and desire to produce, provide for and protect the next generation: to ensure genetic survival. A mother’s ability to feed off this preordained behaviour is unsurpassed and last night, we were privy to one such event as a mundane sighting turned into a breathtaking example of just how unscripted the bush can be.
That morning, we had been fortunate enough to find the Nottins female scouring the lush vegetation for a much needed meal. Not only for her, but with a cub at age 8 months hidden somewhere in the surrounding area, her need to find sufficient food is essential to ensure safe passage to adulthood for her legacy. The relaxed nature of this particular leopard allowed us into her world and we followed her as she meandered through the undergrowth searching for an opportunity that might allow her to provide nourishment for her prodigy. The level of concentration was evident from her behaviour as she routinely stopped and scanned the area, alert to any opening that her lighting reactions and centuries of honed instinct could exploit. Bright sunshine however is not where her advantage lies and although well equipped to prosper in any condition, her search ended in vain and we left her slumbering in the shadows as the temperatures grew to unbearable heights and we too bade a hasty exit to avoid the harsh rays of the African sun.
Later that evening she was spotted again and I made a bee line for the area, keen to see how she had fared during the fading light and to add another chapter to my guests’ experience. As I arrived at the sighting I was disappointed to find that visibility was very limited. Lying deep within the tangled branches of an impenetrable thicket, the only visual was of occasional spots. Guests craned their necks and bobbed their heads as they tried to catch a glimpse of the perfect predator, but to no avail. Time was against us however, and after 10 frustrating minutes I decided that she obviously didn’t want to be seen and that it was time to head home.
However, in the bush, tables can turn in the blink of an eye. As I was turning the land rover, the bushes sprang to life and the leopard, motionless only a moment before, exploded from the thicket only meters from us. Hot on her tail was her arch nemesis, a spotted hyena. The surprises were not over yet and as we struggled to comprehend the dramatic turn of events, the cause of the hyena’s interest was revealed. As Nottins bolted to the safety of an adjacent dead tree, she carried with her in her jaws a freshly killed duiker. With all the grace of a decorated Olympian, she scaled the tree in seconds, covering us in a shower of decaying bark dislodged in her wake. The frustrated hyena circled the tree for a few seconds but knew he had been bettered by his more agile foe. Nottins sat upon her perch and caught her breath as she surveyed the surroundings, stopping occasionally to ensure that her prize was securely wedged and safe from the hungry jaws loitering below.
We were treated to a magnificent sight as she stood imperiously on a limb bathed in the yellow glow of our spotlight. Now that the initial shock of the action had subsided and guests had been assured that we were not in any danger from the formidable cat suspended above us, reaction turned from fear to wonderment as we were able to take in the scene. Golden eyes pierced the surrounding gloom as she ensured that the danger had been neutralized and taught muscles began to relax as a realization that her investment was safe overtook her. The dead tree gave us a perfect view of the leopard, no leaves impeded our view and the silence was overwhelming. The sound of her heavy panting from the exertion of the climb; the occasional scuffing of strong claws as they shifted position on the flaking bark and the diminishing rustle of the grass as the beaten hyena slinked away into the darkness from whence it came, the only sounds to penetrate the darkness. Beauty like this is not often seen, and as a guide there is nothing that can be added that can magnify the experience.
The speed with which she had identified the approaching danger merely served to epitomize the levels of awareness that are essential for survival and success in this harsh environment. From a prone position, to sitting 4 meters above the ground with her cub’s meal safely stashed had taken perhaps a second. Without this speed and lightning reaction, the future of her offspring would have been compromised and thanks to her honed instincts, its chances of survival had been elevated once more. She would no doubt now go and retrieve her cub from the safety of wherever she had left it and lead her investment to its latest meal. Nottins is now 13 years old and to my knowledge has only managed to get 2 offspring to maturity in countless attempts. The Sabi Sands has the highest leopard population per kilometer in the world and competition is rife. In an arena like this, mortality rates can be as high as 80% and without a highly honed maternal instinct, Nottin’s genetic survival is in real jeopardy. We hope and pray that her increased experience will serve both and her cub in good stead for the future!