The Strength of a leopardess

Sabi Sand | February 2020

We set out on our afternoon safari with a plan of working for and hopefully finding a leopard. My tracker Sydwell and I discussed our plan and route and thought we would check a small loop road just on the eastern side of Boulders Lodge. This area was close to where the Schotia female leopard was hiding her two 3-month-old cubs so we thought with the smallest possibility that we would get lucky and find her.

We started the loop and found a large elephant bull slowly meandering his way along the road. We watched on in awe as this huge animal gently passed by our vehicle without paying us any attention. We carried on and soon located a small breeding herd of elephants midway along the loop. We spent some time with them, watching as the boisterous youngsters chased both each other and a flock of helmeted guineafowl around the open clearing. The elephants moved on towards the river and we continued on with our search. Nearing the end of the loop both my tracker and I spotted the unmistakable sight of a hoisted impala carcass in a large jackalberry tree. We pulled out our binoculars to inspect the scene further and soon caught sight of one of the Schotia female’s cubs sitting next to the kill. Jackpot! Our excitement levels went through the roof and we slowly made our approach to have a closer look.

The cub descended the tree to be with its sibling and mom who were both lying in long grass at the base of the tree. We decided to wait at a distance and see if the leopards would go back up to the kill. Sure enough, the Schotia female got up and climbed the tree, this time to try reposition the fully-grown impala ram carcass. It became evident that the female was struggling with the weight of the carcass as she nearly dropped it twice while trying to manoeuvre the carcass across the slanted trunk of the tree.

While doing this, two spotted hyenas spotted her from a distance and came running in, sending the two cubs scampering up the neighbouring tree which is amazing to think that they instinctually know to do this at only 3 months old.

Unfortunately, the carcass wasn’t hoisted high enough to keep away from the hyenas and they very quickly realised this. The larger of the two started jumping, trying to grab hold of one of the legs that were hanging from the tree. The hyena was eventually successful in its attempts and clamped onto the dangling leg, completely lifting itself off the ground. We were now witnessing an immense display of strength from the female leopard who was holding both the weight of a fully-grown impala ram (± 60 kg/132lb) and a female spotted hyena (± 65 kg/143 lb) in her jaws.

We sat in disbelief, watching this play out as the hyena started swaying, trying to rip the carcass from the leopard’s mouth. The Schotia female was able to hold on for a full five minutes before the weight got too much for her and she let go, dropping both the hyena and the carcass to the ground.

It was a great effort on the leopard’s part but she had to watch on as the hyenas devoured the impala at the base of the tree. We were left completely amazed at the spectacle we had just witnessed and decided to leave it there so the female could get back to her cubs.