The harsh shrill of a francolin alerted us to the fact that a predator loomed close by. We circled the block a couple of times with no luck before abandoning our hunt in favour of a well-earned cold beer as the Botswanan sun slowly sank beneath the horizon. Francolins are rarely wrong however and with darkness falling over the landscape, we hoped that its shroud would give the predator the confidence to show itself. We carefully returned to the spot of the avian alarm calls, this time armed with a spotlight, hoping to catch a glimpse of the eye-shine that might betray an animal’s presence. Pulses raced and necks craned as the spotlight swept the undergrowth on either side of the land rover. Suddenly, 2 pin pricks of light met our eyes from the bush and after some great driving from TT, our experienced guide, we managed to find a way into the darkness to investigate their cause.
Lying below a large tree, a satiated female leopard watched us carefully as we maneuvered the car into the best position. The spotlight bathed her velveteen coat in soft yellow light and the majesty of this elusive predator was revealed to us all. The Leopard ID Project has visited Machaba before on the basis of its high leopard population but this was what we had come for, an unrecorded individual to add to our database. In the shadows close by lay the remains of an impala carcass that had fallen foul to the silent assassin that dozed peacefully before us. The hind quarters had been devoured as well as some of the nutritious internal organs but perhaps a good 40kgs of welcome protein still remained. The female had eaten her fill for now so we switched off all of the lights and sat in the silent darkness, listening to sounds of her pant and the distant splashes as hippos emerged from their watery resting places to roam the plains in search of fresh grass.
A rustle alerted us to the fact that she had risen from her slumber. Still we kept the lights off, reveling in the unknown as we listened to the fallen leaves quietly crunch under her pads. The sound approached the vehicle. Pulses raced as the crunching stopped next to the car, the leopard investigating her dinner audience, feeling bolder and more comfortable now that the ally of darkness enveloped her. It was a truly wondrous moment, and collectively we held our breath until, satisfied that we posed no immediate threat, the soft footsteps abated. The leopardess moved away through the undergrowth, our spotlight now illuminating her progress as the apparition melted into the bush beyond the reach of our spotlight.
We left the area in the hope of finding a marauding hyena that might catch the scent of the dead impala but were momentarily distracted by an agile genet as it foraged in a tree close by. As we pulled away, to our surprise, we were met by the imposing sight of a male leopard as he stood in the road before us, long whiskers accentuated by the light as it danced across his form. His nose raised, he sniffed the air and made a beeline to the impala. Hardly believing or luck, we quickly returned to the kill and waited for his inevitable arrival. Eyes glinted before us but this time belonging to a hyena that had also caught wind of a free meal. As hyena’s educated nose led it to the feast, the male leopard appeared from the shadows and grabbed the impala by the neck before effortlessly hoisting it into the tree and out of the hyena’s reach. Blood dripped down the bark of the tree and the moment was immortalized by a bloody paw print, highlighting the path of his ascent. The male, content that his prize was now safe, ate for a few minutes before also disappearing into the night. We returned home about 2 hours after our fellow safari goers, still thanking our luck to have witnessed such a sighting but excited to return the next day to view the next chapter of the story.
The Leopard ID Project group was out a good half an hour before the other cars, eager to return to the scene and watch the male enjoying his spoils. The bush is an unpredictable environment however and what met us as we pulled in to the area was a surprise to us all. The remains of the carcass hung in the tree but no male leopard was to be seen. As we scanned the tree however, we saw the female from the night before draped across a branch. Although satisfied from her night’s feed, her eyes kept wandering to the branches above her. As we followed her gaze, we discovered an extra chapter to an already amazing series of events. High above us, a sub adult leopard also straddled a tree limb, belly bulging. Why the male had left the kill we will never know but at least now we knew why the female had vacated the area the night before: she had gone to fetch her next generation and lead it to the kill.
At approximately just over a year, the cub was still being provided for but soon would be forced to cut its mother’s apron strings and become independent. This was evident by the way in which the mother hissed and spat at her prodigy, her biological clock telling her that their separation was imminent and that she must prepare to bring another generation into this world. To bring a poignant closure to the story, a hyena arrived on the scene, circling the tree looking up at the meal suspended way above his reach. The hyena did not stay long for it knew that it had been bested by its old nemesis and quickly exited the area unperturbed by this setback, in search of other opportunities.
We left the 2 leopards happily digesting their dinner, blown away by the complexity of this illusive animal’s life, and the excitement of recording 3 new individuals for the Project database. We had seen the full circle – a female with a fresh kill, an opportunistic male reaping the rewards, and then the icing on the cake, a sub adult in tow. These were only 3 of the 10 different leopards identified on this trip but was most definitely one of the highlights! It was a sighting that no of us will ever forget and yet another reminder that the wilds of Africa are a demanding, yet rewarding place. A place where competition is rife, even between predators of the same species, and the battle for their survival never abates.