There are some days when the African bush rewards you for patience and persistence and this day, without question, ranks as my most intense wildlife experience above all others.
Towards the end of our morning drive we had heard that a male and female leopard were found close to the southern bank of one of our rivers, the Msuthlu River. Upon our approach, we were greeted by the Little Bush female, who is notoriously skittish but on this day seemed extremely relaxed. About 10 meters from here was one of the dominant males of our northern sector, the Mahlathini male. He was lying confidently in the grass but every so often he would issue a chilling low frequency growl – the vibrations filling the air around us – what was it that was upsetting him? Then to our amazement, around the corner, lying less than 20 meters away in the grass was the reason – another big male leopard. It was the Maxabeni male – a powerful youngster who oozes confidence. What were the chances of having 3 leopards in a single sighting?!
We had to return to Earth Lodge after the sighting but the question on my mind the whole drive home was ”what was going to happen in this very unusual situation? ” It was at this point that I decided to ask my guests if they would like to return to the scene of the sighting after breakfast. Two of my guests, Angie and Loren, a mother and daughter from England, could not contain their excitement and jumped at the opportunity to return.
Once we relocated them, the mood was decidedly tense. Mahlathini had a look in his eye of real anger and intent. The Little Bush female had moved from her position beside Mahlathini and was now sitting in front of the Maxabeni male.
She clearly had shifted her attention to Maxabeni, and was snaking around him in a type of dance that leopards do in order to show the male her willingness to mate. Even with all these flirtatious gestures, Maxabeni resisted her advances in what would seem only as a sign of respect to Mahlathini. Mahlathini, enraged by the actions of the Little Bush female, intensified his growls to let them both know he would not stand by and let this happen.
The Maxabeni male, realising that the situation was getting tense, decided to walk away but walked across the path within 4 meters of Mahlathini who decide to escort the male away from the area and walked parallel with him to make sure that Maxabeni knew that he wanted him gone. Once they were away from the flirtatious feline, Maxabeni decide to lie down in the grass, all the while Mahlathini had positioned himself less than 5 meters away in a clearing.
After about 5 minutes the titans were joined by the Little Bush female and as if making a choice, looked at both males intently and then made her way to the side of the Maxabeni male. Once again, Maxabeni moved away in an attempt to defuse the situation, but it looked like Mahlathini saw this as a weakness and thought he would push home his dominance and authority after this very public display of humiliation. As we followed them round the corner our first sight was these two magnificent beasts standing on their hind legs, teeth and claws exposed swinging wildly at each other with a clear goal to injure or maim the other. The cats then fell to the ground in a clinch and all that could really be seen were two spotted pelts meshed together by exposed claws – but one of them had an advantage.
One of the leopards had clamped its jaws over the other with the incisors positioned over the nasal cavity while the bottom teeth kept the jaw closed, depriving its opponent of breath. I had only ever seen this technique used by lions and never by leopards but this was no normal fight, this was now becoming a life and death struggle, kill or be killed. Animals will really only use fighting as a last resort for fear of a potentially fatal injury and these two leopards were now prepared to fight to the death. When both were locked in this clinch in the grass, it was fairly noticeable that the one leopards breathing was getting slower. This coupled with a horrible sound of what I presumed was blood filling the lungs, was becoming too much to bear. Angie and Loren, who are wildlife fanatics watched in horror – was this to be their first ever kill? There was a flurry on the ground but once again the one leopard had a clear advantage and it would take a lot to shift his vice-like jaw grip on his opponent – this was his moment. They then both returned to the ground once again in a clinch, each breath getting slower for what could be the last breath taken by one of these beautiful cats that we follow so intensely. My hands were shaking and sweaty, my heart, filled with adrenalin was beating like an African drum in my chest, I wanted to look away but I realised this was something that was rarely ever seen. In a last ditch effort the leopard who was on deaths door broke free and they both stood to face each other once more. They collided again, teeth and claws exposed, using any piece of armoury available to them.
The leopard who broke free, now with a blood stained nose and mouth, lashed out with his paws knocking his attacker off his feet and then attempting to jump on him to finish his attacker off. What a turn of events, could this now be his moment?!
With a quick twist, the tables turned once more. The bloody nosed leopard had his back against the floor and the other stood over him ready to deliver the last fatal act.
It was only at this point could we identify the victor and the defeated. The leopard standing over his prize was the younger male, Maxabeni. He had out matched his more experienced opponent and used unique tactics, born from his confidence and huge chest to gain an upper hand. All that was left to do was administer the final rights on Mahlathini. To the amazement of everybody, he let Mahlathini get up and for what seemed like 3 minutes these two incredible, blood stained titans stood side by side.
It was at this point, in an almost acknowledgement of defeat, Mahlathini walked away. There was a huge incisor sized puncture on his nose, streaming blood until it dripped from his chin.
The most heart breaking moment was when this forlorn creature looked back in the direction of his conqueror for the last time before disappearing onto the southern river bank. The Maxabeni male for once stood his ground – the pacifist who did not seem to want to fight was the victor. The tension in this interaction was indescribable, the sound and power coming from these magnificent specimens making a stand for territory and mating rights. Even though this was extremely difficult to watch, this is a battle that has played out since the beginning of time and is nature’s way of ensuring survival of the fittest. This was a defining moment in the future of the leopards of Sabi Sabi and we had witnessed it unfold in its most brutal form.