Over the past week or so, the Old Airstrip has proven to be a happy hunting ground for this big cat. The flat, open and rectangular shaped piece of earth where aeroplanes used to land has become a popular hangout for Impala when darkness falls. This short-grassed area provides these antelope with a slight advantage at night, as it increases their chances of seeing predators approaching. However, the thick Acacia thickets surrounding the Old Airstrip in turn provides good cover for patient predators, as they bide their time, scoping the surrounds for a potential target.
Impala rams are currently involved in the ‘rutting season’, and are thus preoccupied with the business of gaining dominance over other males, and in doing so, the right to reign over a herd of ewes. The focus of their attention shifts from the survival of the individual, to the general survival and well being of the species, as the annual rut ensures that the strongest genes are passed on. This whole ordeal in which the rams lock horns and chase each other around, makes them less alert to the presence of predators than they would normally be. And to boot, they expend a lot of their energy in these contests and become fatigued. It is no surprise then that Impala rams top the kill count in the weeks of the rutting season.
We were following the Newington male leopard one night as he moved through the Acacia thickets on the western edge of the Old Airstrip when, about 100 meters away, the dinner bell rang…there was a clattering of horns – two rams were going at it head-on. The leopard, not hesitating for even a second, bolted out into the open and within seconds he had brought down one of the rams. He proceeded to drag the carcass eastwards into a gully system, where he spent the next two hours consuming it.
After the Newington male had reduced that impala to scraps, he moved barely 500 metres before striking again, as yet another male impala fell victim at this grueling time of year. The leopard dragged the impala into a thicket. When we returned to the sighting the following morning, we did not arrive alone for – as we approached the leopard and his kill – three hyenas came charging in. A valuable skill for animals is knowing when to pick your fights, and for this young adult leopard, this was not the time to fight. He was already relatively well fed, and taking on as many as three hyenas, he risked serious injury to himself. So he showed wisdom beyond his years by backing off… but not completely. In a true testament to leopards ability to go unnoticed, he hid in long grass a mere three feet away from where the scavengers were feasting. They had no idea he was there. At times it looked like they were almost on top of him. In between bouts of feeding, the hyenas would stop and do a quick patrol of the area to make sure nothing (especially lions) was sneaking up on them.
One of these moments could the leopard with an opportunity to intercept his kill and hoist it up a large Jackelberry tree about fifty meters away, but he showed patience. The hyenas hadn’t moved off far enough for his liking, but after about thirty minutes that window opened, and the leopard made his move. He was halfway up the tree when the hyenas came charging back. But it was too late for them, and the Newington male had the last laugh. Or did he? For the rest of that day we enjoyed great viewing of him up the tree – always good for photography.
The next morning the Newington male received another visitor, but this time from a member of the same species – and gene pool! The Princess Alice Pans male (his father) chased him off the kill but the very large and aging male would have to settle for the few scraps that were left.
Pieter van Wyk
Ranger – MalaMala Game Reserve