Seeing a leopard is always one of the highlights of a safari. They are as special as they are elusive, and therefore we have been absolutely over the moon with both the quality and regularity of the leopard sightings over the last month. We have seen kills, we have seen an interaction over a kill between a male leopard and a lioness, and we have discovered at least one new leopard cub. It really has been the most amazing period.
There has been regular viewing of a couple of female leopards both around the sticky thorns, and another that is seen from Puff Adder Pools all the way up Ntsibitsane, to the Sisal Line. Both of these leopards have slightly older cubs, probably in the region of about four to five months old. Both animals are fairly relaxed and we are able to have fantastic views of them, sometimes sharing in very tender playful moments between mother and cub. Many a tracker, guide and guest have returned home, smiling from ear to ear, after having been absorbed in one of these mesmerising encounters.
An early June morning is cold and clear, and one of these we all set out into the adventure of the unknown, not having any idea what the bush would show us. It so happened that that particular morning, mother nature would show us something none would soon forget:
It started with one of our vehicles investigating impala snorting in agitation. When the view opened up after the bend in the road, there was a female leopard holding a kicking male impala by the throat. Startled by the sudden arrival of the vehicle, the leopard then released the impala. Our guide immediately backed the vehicle away as to avoid interfering and very shortly the female returned and completed the kill, in front of some humans whose minds were completely blown away! When the impala had completely expired, the female leopard began to drag her prey up the hill under cover of a stand of thick brush, where she felt comfortable enough to begin feeding. She remained there giving us all tantalising glimpses of her beauty as she moved in amongst the shadows and leaves.
Hearing about the sighting, Sean Bisset, one of our guides, tried to get there to share this experience with his guests. When one is heading to a leopard sighting, there are not many things that can distract you, but one of these is a lioness running across the road in front of you, her stare and attitude intense and battle ready as she ran. She headed straight across the road and then up the almost sheer cliffs that mark the beginning of the Lebombo Mountain Range. The reason for this energy sapping climb soon became apparent, as she made a beeline for a tree overhanging the drop in which a large male leopard prepared himself to defend his hard-earned kill. The scene was set for the dramatic encounter between the two. Although much smaller, the male leopard was confident in the tree, and his low growls and snarls rumbled off the walls of rock as he successfully kept the lioness at bay. The interaction continued for approximately forty-five minutes before the lioness gave up and went to lie, frustrated on the plains below.
That afternoon, we returned to the scene to find the roles reversed. The male leopard lay away from the kill with the lioness feeding on the impala in the tree! Though she was able to climb that tree and feed on the kill, it must be said that she lacked the grace, poise and balance of that magnificent rosetted cat. The whole episode, set upon the dramatic cliff faces of eastern Kruger is something we will all be forever grateful we were able to witness.
There is one more moment that we must mention, and we have possibly saved the best for last: the finding of the Xinkelengane female’s new cub(s). Through the hard work tracker and guide combo, Solly, and Wessel, the Xinkelengane female was found in the Mhlagulene ravine, about midway up our concession. The sighting was incredible to begin with, as the leopard walked along the ravine, which is decorated by age-old ebony trees and red rock shelves. The female leopard then turned, and began to clamber up the rocks until the view was lost. Though still revelling in what they had just seen, all concerned were thrilled to notice some movement in the rocks, possibly signalling the return of the leopard. She did return, though this time, she had something small in her mouth! Down the cliff face she moved until finally she was close enough to reveal that she was carrying a tiny little leopard, limp and trusting in its mother’s powerful jaws. She then turned and walked through the dappled light, down a pebbled drainage line, straight towards the privileged few who were lucky enough to be on that Land Rover that day. After coming within a few metres of the vehicle she then walked off, with all her feline grace and motherly pride, up the ridge and into the rocks. We have not seen the cub since that day, nor do we know if there are more, but we now know that somewhere, in the burning rocks of the Lebombo mountains, is at least one little leopard who, should things go well, will etch his or her story in to the rich legend of this ancient wilderness we call the Kruger National Park.