Leopards are majestic creatures and no doubt this is the reason for so many of us being fascinated by them. They have numerous characteristics that make us stare but there is one that bemuses us, their opportunism. How do you measure opportunism and where do you draw the line? I think of myself as being opportunistic but there is one male leopard that traverses the Sabi Sabi reserve and he is taking it completely to another level.
Leopards are widely distributed throughout Africa and it's their diet that allows them to survive in the harshest of terrains. They will hunt and eat everything that could be of value. Documentaries have shown a female leopard acrobatically leaping around in a tree after a squirrel, one of our rangers saw a male leopard eat a quill covered porcupine and very recently I saw the same male leopard sizing up a much larger prey than what I thought he could handle.
My main aim for our game drive was to look for the pre-historic looking rhinoceros. Only the male rhinos are territorial and within their territory they might have one to a few roaming females. Bringing into calculation my knowledge on rhino behaviour and experience in tracking rhinos I planned my game drive route to include open areas, waterholes and grass patches consisting of short sweet grass in my hope of finding tracks or rhinos themselves. A lot of times we depend on tracking to find the animals but this time it wasn't needed.
First we spotted the movement of her tulip shaped ears and then the sought after horn. It was a female rhino, and as an added bonus right behind her was her calf. We positioned the game drive vehicle in the best possible spot and watched how the female settled down forgetting about our presence. It wasn't long before we were totally forgotten and the calf was back in his element; head butting his mom's pillar of a leg, trampling and playfully plucking the surrounding grass. The serene atmosphere was disturbed with an unexpected rustle in the grass a few meters from where the two rhinos were. I focused and zoomed in on the moving grass. First I spotted the paw, then the white tip of the tail, followed shortly by the rosette covered body. I was in disbelief and forcefully uttered the words; "Look, a male leopard!" My disbelief became shock when I saw that the leopard was down in a crouching position stalking the rhinos. I couldn't help but watch in wonder at how this male leopard inched his way forward stalking these rhinos.
With her sense of smell a lot more acute than any of her other sense, the female rhino detected the leopard's presence before she could hear or see it. One snort got the calf's attention; side by side they shuffled and sniffed the air for the unknown danger. It was at that moment that the leopard dashed out of the grass straight for the calf. In amazement we watched how the female rhino charged the leopard without hesitating in her actions. The leopard missed the sharp horn by an inch, light-footedly leaped back into the bush and crouched down. The rhino and calf were barely regrouped when the leopard struck again. This time the mother was positioned between the leopard and calf and it took no fancy footwork but only a swift swing of her head. The leopard retreated for a second time, unsuccessful in his attempt. Tightly together the calf followed his mother's every single move. It was silent and the tension in the atmosphere was tangible. The leopard attacked again. The shuffling of the rhino's large feet created a dust cloud and the frantic guttural sounds coming from the dust made it evident that this attack was a bit more serious. The calf got separated from his mother and he was the first to leave the dust cloud. What was mere seconds felt like ages before the female rhino shot out of the dust and ran as fast as she could to get to her calf.
The dust settled and so did our heartbeats. We had no energy left to follow either the one or the other and just sat and watched the rhino still running while the unsuccessful leopard dragged his paws in the opposite direction. Stunned we returned to Little Bush Camp still not sure if what we saw was an act of opportunism or desperation.