Leopards are difficult animals to track. They tread lightly, often leaving only faint signs of their passing in even the finest of dust. Secretive by nature, favouring drainage lines and thickets in which to move around, trying to find them can be a frustrating endeavour!
Recently on a trek, we were unable to find any signs of the Dudley Riverbank female and her youngster. Suspecting they were east of our boundary, we were heading back to camp for breakfast when eagle-eyed tracker Mike Sithole spotted a leopard crouched under a gwarrie bush about 50m from the road. Moving in to see which leopard it was, we realized it was a completely new male, who had never been seen by either Mike or me. He was relatively young, probably around 3 or 4 years old, and was staring intently into a thicket about 100m away. Mike’s supernatural vision again came into play as he spotted a newborn impala lamb, with the mother in attendance still cleaning the afterbirth off the newborn.
The young male leopard eyes his quarry from the cover of a thicket.
This in itself was an amazing sight. We moved closer and were privileged enough to witness the tiny impala take its first steps, but with the leopard watching its every move, and with the little lamb barely able to support its own bodyweight, the tragic inevitability of the whole scene was clear for all to see.
Long, sharp canines and a powerful bite result in a mercifully swift death for the newborn impala.
Stalking closer, the leopard silently made its approach, but it could have walked up through the middle of a clearing and the little lamb would still have been doomed. Maybe the leopard had only seen the mother impala.
Whatever the case, it was over soon. A quick rush by the cat, a fleet-footed dash for safety by the impala ewe and the subsequent discovery of the lamb by the leopard took place in mere seconds, and a swift bite to the back of the neck ensured that the little impala’s suffering was over in an instant.
The young male carries his prize towards more familiar, safer territory. The wet fur of the impala lamb from its birth shows just how young it is.
The sighting took place quite close to our boundary, and the young cat unfortunately chose to drag his kill over the road to where we couldn’t follow. We didn’t mind too much, as the drama and excitement had been more than we could have hoped for. It was a poignant lesson for all of us about just how fragile a thing life in the African bush is. Witnessing the cycles of birth and death in violent juxtaposition was an amazingly humbling experience that morning!
A last look back towards where the mother impala stood staring after her lost offspring. Perhaps the leopard was thinking of the even bigger kill he had missed. We lost sight of him about a minute after this shot was taken.
Written and Photographed by James Tyrrell