young and naive or strong by nature

Have you ever watched children playing on a climbing frame in a playground? It's fierce, with a lot of enthusiasm and they conquer the climbing frame without hesitation. Young animals seem to have the same mannerisms. It's the young elephants that open their ears trying to fiercely intimidate us while the older females peacefully pass. Observing the enthusiasm with which a baby rhino pounces around playfully fighting his calm grazing mother is contagious. Recently, while out on a game drive, we found a young male leopard and until today I stand in awe of his fierce unpredictable behaviour.

It's a combination of elements that shapes my fascination with leopards, of which their tree climbing and dragging carcasses up into trees are at the top of the list. Driving past big bulky Marula trees I can almost always imagine a leopard lounging on one of the horizontal branches looking down at us. While on drive one afternoon we found a female leopard and her older cub on the remains of an impala in a Marula tree - and hanging around underneath was a scavenging hyena catching the fallen scraps. We couldn't have asked for more than this and after watching the leopards for quite some time we decided to continue with our drive. Little did we know at that point in time that we would not be leaving anytime soon.

leopard in a tree on safari game drive

As we were making our way out of the sighting we heard an alarm call from the herd of impala we had noticed in the distance. At first we thought the alarm call was because of us posing as a threat, but Rondy, (my tracker) pointed before he could utter the words "male leopard". We all gasped as we realized that the female with her cub were in the tree only about ten meters to our left. We couldn't identify the male from that distance but even if the male was the father of the cub, he would act with no mercy if he saw them. At that moment we were in the ideal position where we could keep an eye on the two leopards in the tree as well as the approaching male leopard. The direction in which he was heading led us to believe that he knew nothing about the female and her cub. Our hopes were crushed when he stopped and sniffed the air. He took his time in analyzing the scent then changed direction and was heading straight towards us. He stopped again. We were sure that he had got the scent of the carcass and would only be a matter of time before he pin-pointed it.

leopard spots something

The female and her cub's attention were drawn to the male's presence with the impalas first alarm call. At that stage she had climbed down the tree while the young leopard stayed. The male was closing in on them and we became concerned for the young leopard which was still in the tree.


The female was crouched down in the grass and the male leopard was closing in on them. He came too close for comfort and the female stood up and out of her crouching position. The male leopard saw her and started running, and the female took off with the cub right behind her. At some point the male must have noticed the carcass in the tree because he then acted as if only the carcass in the tree was important and was on the kill within a few seconds. We lost visual of the female and her cub and watched the male leopard in the tree. This scene didn't last for long.

A rustle in the grass gave away the position of the cub and we were all shocked to see that he was actually still there.

He walked closer and although the male leopard was feeding we knew from his growling that he was well aware of the cub.

Without hesitation but with a safe distance between him and the tree, the cub circled the tree, mocking - almost challenging the male leopard. We were surprised and shocked by his behaviour. A few minutes later a hyena and the calling female leopard arrived.

The intruder became too much for the cub to handle and he decided to leave his bravery for another day and follow his mother.

This specific leopard cub is known to be opportunistic but we had to ask ourselves about what we saw that day; was it him being strong by nature or young and naïve?

by: solomon mathebula (bush lodge ranger)

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