One always has to look out for and listen to the clues that the bush is giving you when on safari. Often a sound can lead to so much more than just a herd of impala making a racket! Recently, on a particular morning, the sounds of the bush and the eventual look on a giraffe’s face was all the evidence we needed (Well, maybe the sound of a leopard calling in the distance also helped) in order to have a very successful, if not heart-breaking sighting.
I had just stopped with my guests to check out some tracks on the road when right in the middle of my passionate tracking talk, a leopard started calling. We could hear that she wasn’t very close, but also not too far away. However, while myself and Jack thought the call was coming from one direction, a guest of ours was convinced it was coming from another. We stopped and listened for another call, which never came, and so myself and Jack decided that our initial direction was the one to go in. We drove for a short while toward where the sound was coming from before suddenly happening upon a group of giraffes. We hadn’t seen many so far, so I decided to stop and watch them for a bit. I was just getting into my talk on the digestive system of a giraffe, when once again, I was rudely cut off by the classic impala alarm call, usually made when they see something they don’t necessarily like. It’s always a rather exciting sound to hear and so I gladly ended my digestive talk and under the perfect guidance of Jack, on the tracker seat, we went off road weaving between all the small trees and bushes in the direction we thought to be correct.
Jack suddenly pointed forward as he had spotted a hyena. Now, it was not a leopard, but a hyena in this situation is usually following a leopard that happens to be causing all the drama. With that in mind we locked onto the hyena and followed him through the bush. After a while we lost sight of him as he was moving fairly quickly in search of the leopard himself. However, when one sign is lost, often another is found, and it was the dead eye stare of a nearby group of giraffes that eventually gave away the leopard’s position!
Initially, we only saw one leopard, a male moving quickly in the opposite direction, as is so often the case with male leopards in this area. With that, my heart had just begun to sink with the thought that this wasn’t going to be a great sighting after all, when suddenly, Jack spotted yet another leopard. This time it was one of our local females who goes by the name Thombela, which means to hide. With her entering the scene my spirits were suddenly lifted as she is one of the most relaxed leopards in the area.
Two leopards in the same sighting is always amazing, but a small herd of giraffe, a hyena and two leopards takes the cake. Once I got into a good position, I turned off the vehicle and, interestingly, a few minutes later the male began to approach Thombela. He was very cautious of us, but continued slowly towards the leopardess. My initial thought was that the pair were about to mate, something which is very rare, and indeed very special to see. I briefly took my eye away from the leopards to focus on the approaching hyena when suddenly the serenity of the sighting was broken as the large male rushed at Thombela. Dust filled the air and the sound of two leopards roaring and scuffling in the sand took over.
This was the first leopard fight I had ever witnessed and it was astounding to see the two cats moving in such a way. It was brutal and loud and as quickly as it started, it was over, with the male charging off and out of the scene of the crime. I luckily managed to get my camera up to my eye just in time to capture a few shots of the drama. To see this very aggressive and fast movement frozen in time is something I will cherish forever!
Leopards, and animals in general, will fight due to territorial issues with one another, but this time it was different. This male had no reason to attack Thombela due to territorial issues as normally male leopards will be ecstatic to house a few females in their often much larger territories. Thus, the only explanation I can think of is that on occasion, female leopards that happen to be on heat (oestrous) can be a bit too demanding of the male they are involved with. Often following and pestering the male until he either gives in and mates with her or gets so frustrated that he actually attacks her. This is what I believed happened on this occasion, but I may be wrong.
Only once the male had left the scene, running deep into the bush, were we able to see the damage that Thombela had endured. She lay fairly still on the ground for a short while before sitting up with her left paw hanging above the ground. Immediately we could see the red of blood. She began licking her injury with visible signs of pain and discomfort before standing up and moving very slowly in the direction that the male had gone. Sadly, she was in just too much pain to keep going and soon lay back down atop a small termite mound, to further tend to her wounds.
It was her action of attempting to follow her attacker that lead me to believe this squabble was an unfortunate repercussion of her persistence to mate with him. By the time we left the sighting I was happy to see her reapplying the pressure to her paw as she began to search for her prospective mate once again. An injury of this nature has the potential to be life threatening if she loses the ability to hunt effectively. However, on many occasions I have seen animals bounce back from injuries as bad, if not worse, and I have a strong feeling that this incredibly experienced leopardess will come out of this just fine. Only time will tell.
Another great aspect of this sighting was the other animals that shared it with us. The giraffe could not help themselves, but stare intently as the two cats came to blows, and the hyena that was on his way over to pester Thombela, promptly turned around and headed in the other direction as soon as he saw the ferocity of the two cats.
The moral of the story is never let your guard down on safari – you never know where the bush will direct you. Paying attention to your surroundings has the potential to produce some truly amazing sightings.