hyenas hot on her heels
Tracking a female leopard's spoor, allowing the signs and clues to lead us to her whereabouts and then trying to stay hot on her heels like the hyenas whilst she was out on a hunt, was a rush of adrenalin.
It was a pleasant afternoon game drive with herds of impala, zebra, rhino as well as a healthy assortment of birds before we picked up on the leopard's spoor. With our eyes to the ground the chase was on and like a bloodhound we were following her tracks. Tracking her took time and we became concerned that we were running out of daylight. We wanted to find her before the sun set on our opportunity to get those hard earned pictures. It took the practiced eyes of our tracker to spot her perched on a grass and scrub covered termite mound. Oblivious to our approach she had her eyes fixed on her target, a herd of impala close to the waterhole - about 150 metres in front of her. The waiting game was on. Being a carnivore and hunting for your meals requires patience and a lot of it. Her patience gave us the opportunity to appreciate her fully, for little did we know that the scene was about to change.
She hadn't moved an inch since we found her, but all of a sudden we noticed the tension in her muscles and her body language changed visibly. To her immense disappointment she had unknowingly been followed by one of her biggest rivals, the spotted hyena. Leopards work hard while hunting and if not careful they could lose their hard-earned meal to a shadowing hyena. It was clear to us that the hyena hadn't yet seen her and that he was only been led by her fresh scent. We all waited in tense silence to see if the hyena was experienced or if he would lose interest and move on to find another victim. With every second ticking by the hyena was unfortunately decreasing the space between himself and the leopard. The hide and seek game quickly changed when we, the leopard and the hyena were surprised by an alarm call from the forgotten impala. The hyena's sniffing became a brisk walk eagerly looking for action. The leopard crouched down ready to dash in any given direction. The impala moved as a unit scanning for danger. The plot thickened when a second hyena flushed the leopard from her hiding place. We were no longer passive spectators as we started the vehicle waiting for action. We tried our best to keep up with the leopard which was trying to lose the hyenas, but we could only go a limited distance before we saw the last of her - dashing into thick bush with the hyenas hot on her heels. After a fruitless search we returned to the lodge for dinner. The dinner conversation was dominated by questions and theories on our experience and the group made a decision to return to the same area the next day to follow up on the sighting.
Next morning my guests were ready to leave with croissants in their hands. No delay was tolerated. To find nothing at all was a real possibility but the atmosphere on the vehicle was layered with hope. The tracker had our complete attention as we re-lived the previous night's scene through him reading the tracks while looking out for any new clues. All stopped when saw what looked like large drag marks scraping along the road, and, on both sides of those marks, the unmistakable spoor of a female leopard. This is what we were all silently hoping for; that she had been successful in losing the hyenas and had caught one of the impalas. All we needed to do was to find her to confirm this.
We took the time to drive all possible roads, reading the signs and scanning the area with our binoculars. Our patience, like hers, paid off and we found her tucked away under a bush - away from anything that could possibly advertise her kill. Finding the leopard was rewarding but having a glimpse into a slice of her daily activities and frustrations was like winning an award and getting up to collect it.