death of a leopard

leopard in tree

It had been a humid day as I set out on my afternoon safari with my four Swedish and two Swiss guests. We had done a few drives together already and we all got along very well. The plan for our afternoon safari was to go and find a leopard. As we happily chatted away, I slowly made my way towards the area where a female leopard had been spotted that morning. Slowly but surely the humidity in the air increased as dark thunderclouds accumulated behind us.

About ten minutes into the drive my tracker picked up on the female leopard's tracks in the riverbed and we started our search. Another vehicle joined us and we scanned the area on foot to determine the last direction of the tracks. Whilst on foot I became aware of the increasing darkness in the sky and felt a slight uncomfortable rush coming over the safari.

I made my way back to the vehicle and drove to the road where I anticipated the leopard may cross, to check for more signs.

Suddenly it happened. I had just turned my engine off to discuss with my guests a bird that flew over our heads, when the radio crackled: ''Mobile's, I've got one madoda ingwe, bamba'd a mantwaan ingwe…'' Slowly the words got translated into English in my head: ''Land Rovers, I've got one male leopard, killed a leopard cub...'' I looked at my tracker who had also heard the message loud and clear. I was quiet for about 10-15 seconds whilst my guests were patiently waiting for more explanation on the colouration in birds. Eventually I turned around and explained to them what had happened. The happy mood instantly changed into something much more serious. Suddenly the approaching storm was very appropriate.

I made my way to the site of the kill and found the male leopard about 40 meters off into the bush. Next to him was the tiny fragile body of a leopard cub. My fears were confirmed when I realized that this was one of the two young brothers which we've been lucky enough to view over the last eight months. I always felt a special attraction towards these cubs since they were born around the same time I had started working at Sabi Sabi. These cubs had known this place as long as I had. The big ''m" shaped spot pattern on the forehead of the big male confirmed his identity as a resident leopard from one of our neighbouring reserves. His head was raised high as he sat next to the corpse of the cub, panting in the humid air. His face was still very clear in the increasing darkness.

I was the only vehicle with him for about ten minutes, before making space for a new vehicle on its way to pull in alongside me. I tried to interpret the situation for my guests who seemed to realize the uniqueness of the sighting. Slowly the rain started falling with increasing velocity. The rumbling which had been so distant had suddenly come much closer and louder. I became silent as the scene played before my eyes.

After about five or ten minutes the second vehicle pulled in - the rain was now coming down properly. Some people had taken the effort to put on ponchos but I couldn't be bothered. The male leopard started licking the cub, looking almost as if making an effort to try and redeem himself from his mistake. I took away the confusion from my guests by explaining that the leopard did not feel remorse; by killing the youngster he just removed future competition. The licking of the cub was merely trying to get rid of its fur so that the energy expended in making the kill could be returned by consuming the meat.

I wondered where the victim's brother had disappeared to and what had happened to the mother. She had been injured two weeks prior to this; could it be that her injuries impaired her hunting abilities to such an extent that she had chosen to abandon her cubs - was she getting rid of the burden of having to feed three leopards? She hadn't been seen for nearly a week now. Could it be that she herself had fallen victim to a lion or hyena attack? How would the second cub fare without the support of his mother or brother? Was he old enough at eight months to cope with the ordeals of the African bush?

The rain was pouring down now as the lighting strikes became more and more frequent. I left the sighting trying to follow proper radio procedures through the rain, thunder and images in my mind. I didn't say a word whilst driving on the roads which had now turned into rivers. After 20 minutes we were back at the lodge and I got my guests to their rooms. After first digging some moats around the staff village to help the water drain away, I made my way to a hot shower. Reliving the drive, I got dressed and met my guests in the bar. The bar and dinner conversation revolved only around what we had experienced.

It was a drive that I'll never forget.

The next morning we found the female leopard walking with the second cub which was running and playing alongside its mother. I realized how the death of its brother, no matter how dramatic it had been, had only increased the second cubs chances of survival. This is how the cycle completes.

by: joost besijn (bush lodge ranger)

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