lions, leopards and wildebeest - will lawson
What a perfect evening! The temperature had dropped to a comfortable 20°C, every cloud had dispersed leaving a wide open African night sky, and a waxing moon moving into its gibbous phase shone brightly above us! We had just finished taking in the panoramic views from on top of Klipspringer Koppies, with yet another spellbinding sunset over the Drakensberg Escarpment, and we were back on the road, in search of leopards!
There had been a sighting of a large Tom (male leopard) close to our airstrip which was about 2 kilometres from our sundowner spot. As we made our way to the area, Elliot, a ranger on another vehicle called me - he'd managed to relocate the big male! I didn't tell my guests at this point. They knew we were on the hunt, but I wanted to surprise them with the spectacle to come!
As we rounded the bend with lights in the distance from Elliot's vehicle, my guests started to eagerly chatter about what may be ahead! With no more than 20 meters to go, there in the road stood the unmistakable silhouette of the Tom, spectacularly back-lit by Elliot's lights! A chorus of gasps and premature clicking from trigger happy cameras suddenly ensued.
We pulled off to the side of the road to give the leopard plenty of space to casually saunter straight past us. More gasps, more clicking! We turned and followed him as he inspected Guarrie bushes at the road side, and scent marked his way along his route. It became clear that he was heading toward the northern end of the Sabi Sabi airstrip. En- route to the leopard we'd seen the eye-reflection of wildebeest in that area, and I discussed with my guests that it was not uncommon for leopards to hunt the younger members of a wildebeest herd.
With only me and Elliot in the sighting we followed the Tom across the northern end of the strip and into the dense vegetation on the other side. As he weaved his way through, approaching the open area in front, my tracker Max spotted the wildebeest not far from the leopard's projected route. We got into position and turned off the Land Rover engine and lights; Elliot did the same. I could just make out his silhouette at the edge of the open area with the wildebeest beyond. Then suddenly he was gone! A snort, a rush of hooves, and the wildebeest also vanished! We turned on the lights to see what had happened and glimpsed the male leopard at full speed chasing the group, and we noticed that the herd included a juvenile of about 6 months old. We again turned off the lights and waited for any tell-tale distress calls….but heard none! We got back on the move, onto the open area and in the direction of the chase. My tracker caught sight of the wildebeest heading at a fast pace toward the airstrip, and then we heard the clatter of hooves as they crossed over the tarred surface. It seemed as though he had missed the quarry. The two trackers scoured the blackness for the predator and quickly found him slinking off toward the airstrip; he hadn't given up!
We didn't follow him through the thicker bush, but instead headed to the airstrip itself to see where the wildebeest had gone, once again anticipating the leopard's route. We could see and hear the wildebeest rhythmically clattering off down the tar, and when we shone our spotlight back up the airstrip we saw the Tom materialise out of the bush into the open. He crossed and moved south along the opposite edge of the airstrip. I slipped the vehicle into low range and we slowly chaperoned the leopard and watched him continue his hunt from the middle of the tarred strip.
He weaved from one side of the strip to the other trying to pick out the best vantage point, as the wildebeest, now with less urgency, continued their small migration south. By this point Elliot had headed home leaving us as the solitary observers. It was magic! I regularly turned off the vehicle leaving the leopard to pick his way through the long grass at the side of the airstrip as we all took in the night sky above us and the sounds of the bushveld all around us.
Eventually the wildebeest came to a rest about 1 km down the 1.5km length of the runway. We watched as the leopard moved off into the thicker bush behind them. Up till now the smooth surface of the strip had muffled our movements and I wasn't about to change that by following him off-road. It was clear what his intensions were, so instead we moved around to the opposite side of the airstrip, got comfortable, and waited!
Being autumn, the summer 'background buzz' of the African night was less prominent, and we could hear the wildebeest shuffle and softly snort as they got settled in their new spot. After about 15 minutes of talking about this particular leopard's history in the area and discussing what we thought his best chances were, Max, my tracker, who had been periodically checking the area with his spotlight, got my attention. He shone the light down to the southern end of the airstrip about 500 meters away, and shining back as us were eyes. It seemed as though some wildebeest had continued their movement further south and we hypothesised that this may be a better opportunity for the Tom. As we moved off toward the smaller group of gnu something about them seemed odd, but I was unable to put my finger on it as we rolled on. With about 200 meters to go, still dissatisfied about the animals ahead, I slowed the vehicle to a halt, took out my binoculars and peered along the spotlight's beam. What I saw caught me completely off guard! Coming up from the southern end of the airstrip was not a group up ungainly wildebeest, but 13 eager, alert and very hungry looking lions!!
Not wanting to give their presence away to the wildebeest, I asked Max to turn off the spotlight. "Guy's you are not going to believe this, but…": In the moonlight all I could see were my guests wide eyes shining back at me as I informed them of the marauding predators moving straight towards us! We sat and we waited, our eyes straining in the half-light to try to make out any shape or hear any sound of the lions as they approached… nothing. Suddenly I felt a very close presence, on my right side. Looking into the dark, there 5 meters from my door, stood the largest female from the pride silently looking with perfect night vision toward the unsuspecting wildebeest behind us. The solitary figure became two, then three and I heard from the gasps behind me that my guests had now become aware of all the lions as well. "They're all around us!" one guest whispered. And they were! In the darkness surrounding our isolated vehicle, a whole pride of lions stood silently!
One by one, without any sound, the ghostly figures moved past us. From watching them time after time, I can only assume that they began to fan out behind us as they started their stalk of the wildebeest ahead of them. "What about the leopard?" the lady behind me whispered. I'd completely forgotten about the Tom! No doubt he was also watching in dismay as his larger, more powerful cousins began to move in on the quarry that he had painstakingly been following for the past hour! It was hard to decide whether or not he would realise that his chance was gone and leave, or watch from a safe vantage point to maybe capitalise on the panic that would no doubt ensue as the lions closed in. If it was another leopard, wild dog or hyena hunting the wildebeest my money would be on him to stay and watch what happened, in the knowledge that a stray calf could be quickly taken up into a tree out of harms way. But with Lions… I'm not so sure. The odds would be against him, and there is a good chance that if they found him up a tree, the lions would follow! We came to the conclusion that he was now out of the equation.
My tracker and I decided that there was no need to move from our position; whether we looked forward into the dark or backward into the dark, we would still be none the wiser. As we sat patiently I heard the soft rhythmic breaths of something approaching. Using the larger aperture of my binoculars objective lens to gather what light there was available, I peered down the runway toward the sound. The leader of the pride approached! Still nursing an injury to his back right leg, and struggling under the weight of his heavy mane, his self cooling pant gave him away. As his imposing shape approached he paused and stared ahead. Seeing the movement of his pride ahead of him he sat, watching intently as the hunt developed before his nocturnal eyes.
Suddenly, a burst of sound, a crack, a snort and stampeding hooves indicated the hunt had reached fever pitch. I glanced to my right, the male was gone. I started up the vehicle and swung the nose up the runway towards the activity. Gold and black moved erratically from one side of the runway to the next. We pulled away to follow the animals up the airstrip but as we approached, the gold specks between the black cloud began to congregate and slow, and the space between the groups quickly grew. As we caught up we could see that, yet again, the wildebeest had somehow avoided their pursuers! As their hooves disappeared into the night the lions regrouped, seemingly unperturbed by the loss, and like a well regimented force they slowly started to move back up the airstrip in single file.
Two hours had passed from the moment we first caught sight of the leopard to the lions moving off into the night - two hours very well spent in my books, and two hours not easily forgotten!!