safari bush sightings
tree climbing hyena
When sitting around the dinner table or a fire in the boma, one of the most common questions a field guide will be asked is, "What is the most amazing thing you have ever seen while out on safari?" This usually leaves the guide scratching his or her head, trying to sift through thousands of memories acquired over a number of years in the bush. The same used to happen to me until I saw something so incredible that I now have an immediate answer to that question. The story goes like this:
A combination of a late dinner the night before and a light dawn rain meant that the first hour of the morning safari was off to a bit of a slow start. When the radio came to life at about 07h30 it was most welcome! The particular female leopard we were on our way to see has a bit of a reputation for being slightly more aggressive than most, so it was with some trepidation as well as excitement that we made our way to the sighting.
On our arrival at the scene we were very pleased to find the leopard already up in a jacket plum tree, greedily gnawing on a small carcass. Upon closer inspection with binoculars, the mangled pile of flesh and hair turned out to be a newborn wildebeest - the third such kill by the leopard that month. Two hyenas also lay patiently waiting for scraps nearby. After about ten minutes, her hunger sated, the leopard left the kill in order to fetch her nine month old cub which she had hidden in the scrub nearby. One of the hyenas took this opportunity to sniff around the base of the tree for any leftovers. As the hyena sniffed around and periodically glanced up at the kill, this curiosity soon became something more deliberate. The much maligned hyena is in fact one of Africa's most intelligent and adaptable creatures and this individual proceeded to show us why. The jacket plum's multi-stemmed growth form meant that the hyena was able to slowly begin "climbing" the tree! Paw over paw it inched its way up, using its strong back and neck muscles to lever itself higher and higher. I kept emphasizing to my guests that they were witnessing the most amazing safari spectacle they would most likely ever see.
Eventually, after much exertion, the hyena sat panting and salivating in the tree. It was now about 10 feet off the ground and inches away from its prize with no way to climb any higher. All of the guests gasped as, with one last desperate lunge, it managed to clamp a tiny piece of skin in its mouth. As the mammal with the most powerful jaws in the world, the hyena managed to hang suspended in the air for a second and then fell into the lowest fork of the tree with a bone-crunching thud, its prize following it down. But hyenas being as tough as they are, it ran off a few hundred yards to finish the carcass in peace.
As we sat in shocked silence we saw two outlines appear on the tree line. By this time the mother leopard had now brought her cub to claim its share of the kill. As they approached the jacket plum the mother began to sense that something was amiss. She scrambled up the tree only to find that the carcass had mysteriously disappeared! She growled and hissed at us as she glanced from side to side in a panicked fashion. Her movements became more and more urgent until eventually she jumped down from the tree. Her feline logic didn't allow her to believe that one of the hyenas had indeed found it within themselves to climb the tree and so she turned on us. The growling and roaring which emanated from her was enough to send chills down all of our spines and we took this as our cue to leave. As we drove away the nervous laughter coming from behind me reminded me that it would be a day never to forget!