climbing a tree

leopard and cub while safari game drive at sabi sabi

I have been adventurous from a very young age and climbing a tree was of course on my "to do" list. My mom knew it was inevitable so she decided to rather inform us of the obstacles we would encounter when climbing a tree, indirectly hoping that her warnings would keep us from doing it. I remember that day like it was yesterday.

leopard climbing a tree

The bark was as slippery as my mom had told me but I got that part right and soon I found myself on the first branch. The first branch was strong enough to hold me, also the second and third, but by the fourth I had got myself into a bit of a mess. Looking down I realized that my mom was right about the getting down part as well.

I delayed the "Mom, help!" call for as long as I could but eventually I had to. I was in a leopard sighting recently and as I sat and watched a familiar scene unfold in front of me I realized how when we were younger we thought we knew best but I can tell you now, looking back, we didn't.

While on game drive one afternoon I formed part of a team of three rangers following up on a female leopard and her two year old cub. The last tracks we found went off the road into the bush and no tracks came out on any of the other roads.

We heard the alarm calls of impalas and one of the rangers decided to drive into the bush to investigate. The rest of us waited at strategic positions on different roads checking for any sign of a leopard. The excited ranger's voice broke the intense silence on our game drive vehicle when he announced that he had found the leopard and that she had brought down a baby impala.

We got to the leopards just in time to see the cub picking up the impala. He walked off with the impala, looking a bit indecisive until he found a tree, of which there were plenty, but for some reason only he could explain why he stopped in front of a medium size tree with a lot of branches.

leopard climbing a tree with impala kill

We looked at each other as he looked at his mother.

She lay down in the grass and started grooming herself, not bothered by our presence or the cub's intense stare. At that moment we suspected that we were going to witness the cub dragging his first carcass up a tree.

With the impala tucked in between his legs, just as his mother would have done it, he leapt past the smooth bark of the tree trunk onto the first branch. He made that look fairly easy but it was the heavy and lifeless body of the impala that wasn't playing along.

Its weight was placed incorrectly and as the leopard was planning his next move, gravity got the better of the carcass and it slipped from his grip straight back to the ground. I looked at the cub and it was almost possible to see the youngster looking foolishly embarrassed.

He climbed down and did it again. At exactly the same spot as the first attempt the impala dropped to the ground for a second time. Painfully embarrassed he climbed down again. He appeared frustrated when he looked up at the tree for the third time. We held our breath as he got past the trunk, first branch and even a second branch but the third branch hooked the carcass.

leopard climbing a tree with impala kill

Being a younger branch it had a lot of new growth on it and the body got stuck behind a bunch of smaller branches clustered with leaves. Balancing on the branch the leopard tried with all its might to free the carcass but it was a losing battle. He hesitated, then slowly released the carcass from his mouth.

It was clear to us all that the carcass was going nowhere. Tired or frustrated, we weren't sure; the cub acrobatically turned around on the thin branch, took a few steps and plonked himself down on a branch close to the carcass.

The female had been forgotten by all of us up to the moment when the cub stared back at his mother, who clearly showed no interest in him and his frustrations. For quite some time we sat and watched the cub staring back and forth between his mother and the carcass, hoping that she might help. I could relate with him at that moment thinking back to how I had called my mother to help me down from the tree. Unlike my mother, this female got up and without looking back just disappeared into the thicket. I felt kind of sorry for the cub but I guess that's why they say that in the animal kingdom it is all about the survival of the fittest.

by rika venter (bush lodge ranger)

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