Minutes of painstakingly deliberate stalking had placed the leopard only metres away from its prey. His eyes bored into the steenbok with burning intensity. His tail twitched with excitement. Leg muscles bulged and rippled in anticipation. The time was now. The silent assassin exploded from the grass in a blur of orange and black. To the naked eye its spots seemed to melt into stripes as the leopard covered the distance in a blink of an eye. The unsuspecting steenbok stood no chance. A muted wail from the antelope and a swift rustling of grass were the only sounds that broke the silence of the African bush. The hunter’s jaws clamped hard around the neck of the steenbok, stifling any further cries that might alert keen ears to his prize. Within seconds the ordeal was over.
We watched as the powerful cat gripped its prey and dragged it deeper into the bush. Finally he settled at the base of a tall marula tree and allowed himself a moment’s rest. He scanned the surrounding area to ensure that his hunt had gone unnoticed by the seemingly omnipresent hyenas. Satisfied that he could enjoy his meal in relative peace, he set about plucking the fur from the steenbok with his perfectly occluded incisors. We approached to about 10 metres to watch the aftermath and received a look that warned us to keep our distance. The dominant male from the east is normally very relaxed around vehicles but with the scent of fresh blood in his nostrils and adrenaline still coursing through his veins, his demeanor had changed. He never showed aggression towards us but one does not need a PhD in animal psychology to interpret the occasional glance he threw at us.
The long grass that he had chosen to cloak his meal prevented us from a graphic viewing but the blood stains on his face told the story in their own words. It was like a throwback to the old horror movies when directors gave the viewer a taster of the action and let their sub-conscious do the rest. His meal was not to be enjoyed in total peace however as both a crash of rhino and a herd of elephants meandered through the area while we watched him eat his fill. The latter passed us by with trunks raised, their sensitive noses no doubt smelling the plight of the steenbok. They showed no great interest in investigating further but their behavior left little doubt that they comprehended the outcome.
As night fell, the cool air began to carry the steenbok’s fate low across the landscape. Shadows came alive as the hyenas emerged from their dark resting places, ready to embark on their nightly patrols. Soon enough, the scent was detected and sensitive nostrils honed in on its source. The solitary leopard however had experienced this phenomena many times before and like any successful organism, had learned. It was no coincidence that he chose the base of this marula tree to feast. His ears twitched as he heard the grass rustling. His keen eyes picked out the looming hyena as it made a bee line for the meat. Without a moment’s hesitation, the leopard grasped his dinner and his powerful legs propelled him into the lower branches. The hyena beaten, it could do no more than hop around the base of the tree in a vain attempt to match the leopard’s arboreal mastery. Acceptance of his failure came quickly however and the hyena settled down under the tree to wait with the patience of Job, for one mistake from his more agile foe.
The victor draped himself over the branches, his limber body easily absorbing the contours of the branches. A leopard’s ability to make a seemingly impossible position comfortable is unmatched in nature. How such a muscular creature can become as malleable as a piece of play-dough is one of life’s more beautiful conundrums. Content with his aerial advantage, the leopard spent equal time rewarding his hard work and snoozing in the folds of the tree. Occasionally he shot a glaring glance at the squatting hyena below him but confident in his maneuverability, he never really looked worried.
Bathed in the glow of the spotlight, the leopard’s velveteen fur took on a hypnotic hue; the background diminished as our eyes focused on one of the visual wonders of the world. We watched in awed silence as this master of concealment and grace cemented his place in our hearts as one of the most beautiful sights in nature. We returned the next morning, eager to top up our memories but the enigma of the African night had lived up to his reputation and vanished.
Seeing him again would have been amazing but perhaps would have diminished the magic of the night before. If I close my eyes, I can still see him draped in the branches, the same way that a bright image is burned on to the retina when the lights go out. The leopard seems to be born with an innate sense of drama in its psyche and it is this gift that makes every sighting so special.