Passing the buck

Sabi Sand | September 2019

The feeling of excitement and anticipation fills the vehicle as we head out on our morning game drive. Much like the first day of school, there is something very innocent and peaceful about not knowing what tales will unfold before us as we set out on our adventure. I would never have been able to guess that upon our return back to the lodge, a mere four hours later, we would all be drowning in feelings of intense emotion.

Taking the beautiful scenic route along the northern bank of the Sand River, we came across a relaxed pair of mating leopards – the Schotia female and the Nyeleti male. With a few flirty movements from the female, they started to head north away from the river and into some thick bushes. Keen to follow their journey, we looped around the corner ahead, anticipating their arrival towards us.

Upon rounding the corner however, our attention was caught by a white mark bounding through the web of green and yellow vegetation. This fluffy white marker belonged to a male nyala, and it was in fact the white hair underneath his curled-up tail that was catching our eye as he leaped away from us. This sight didn’t just capture our attention, but a small herd of impala to our right were also transfixed on this movement. Seconds later it became apparent why the nyala was so keen to evacuate. We caught a glimpse of a rosetted yellow and black tail through the bushes, just behind the impala. With the antelope staring in the opposite direction and the bushes concealing the leopard’s movements, we watched in silence as this dramatic scene played out in front of us.

On our right-hand side blocking the impala’s view, we saw one of the leopards crouching down, stalking the animals. I don’t think anyone in the vehicle was breathing at this point; each person holding their breath, too transfixed to even make a sound.

The leopard sprang from the bushes, bursting out in a flash of yellow and black. Bellowing alarm calls filled the still air as the startled impala scattered fleetingly in all directions. The Nyeleti male leopard chased one of the impalas, racing away from us into the distance and out of sight.

A few seconds passed. With the impala’s alarm calls subsiding slightly, calmness attempted to creep back to the scene. This attempt was short lived. In the rush of excitement and surprise, we forgot about the second leopard hiding behind the bushes. The Schotia female leaped from the bushes into the clearing, pouncing on a distracted impala ram, spinning a full 360 degrees with it in her grasp. Silence engulfed our small radius as she held its neck in her jaw, throttling it to death. Alarm calls still filling the air around us but we were transfixed on this beautiful beast as she choked this creature. Minutes passed and the chaotic noises around us began to ebb. The small jerks from the impala ram became less and less and eventually the leopard released her powerful jaw.

Looking around cautiously, the female began to quietly feed. With no sign of the male leopard, we could only imagine his attempt was unsuccessful and he was lying back down at the river. Listening to the gentle crackling and crunching of the bones, we were totally unaware of a third leopard approaching cautiously from the west. Quite unexpectedly, the Schotia female promptly sat up and very calmly and submissively walked away from her kill, making space for this new arrival, the Hukumuri female. Named after the prominent drainage line that runs down into the Sand River from the north, the Hukumuri female’s territory brushes up against Scotia’s. The kill the Schotia female had just made was outside of her territory, which explains the submissive behaviour.

The Hukumuri female proceeded to drag the limp impala carcass towards one of the bushes, in an attempt to hide it from impending scavengers. In hindsight however, this was not the wisest move as it drew the attention of the Nyeleti male, who made a reappearance and chased off the Hukumuri female from the kill.

The male leopard briefly surveyed the area, targeting a nearby sausage tree to which he proceeded to drag the impala towards. Taking the impala in his mouth, he hauled it up the sausage tree, lifting it out of the reach of any scavenging hyenas that would no doubt be on the scene at any moment. With a tawny eagle taking interest from above already, we moved out of the drama, passing the Schotia female on our way, viewing the scene from afar with longing and hunger in her eyes.