All Part of A Leopard's Learning Curve - Timbavati Tales #4
Leopards are without doubt the most adaptable of the large carnivores in Africa, and even beyond.
From the Mountains of the Cape’s southern coast, through every province in South Africa (even in the Magaliesberg Mountains just outside Johannesburg), and stretching up to the Sahel, into the Middle East, Asia and even the mountains of Russia and China, one finds leopards. This tolerance of a wide range of habitats – and prey species that go along with them – come from the fact that leopards are generalists, rather than specialists (such as cheetahs for instance, that have evolved their whole existence around chasing fleet-footed ungulates in rather open areas), and as part-and-parcel of being a generalist, it means that leopards have to be opportunistic in order to survive!
This notion of opportunism makes sense in areas such as the Cedarberg where large game is not overly abundant, and leopards have to catch whatever comes their way. But in places like the Timbavati, where impalas are about as common as white motor vehicles in Johannesburg (that’s rather common, to say the least), and steenbucks, duikers and large game birds, such as the less-smart-than-your-average-spoon guineafowls fill in the gaps between, one wouldn’t expect a leopard to be as opportunistic. But they are.
In my time in the Timbavati, I have seen leopards eating a wide range of things; scavenging off buffalo carcasses, eating a dead lioness, killing fully grown female kudus, the odd impala (1001 is an odd number), as well as less than usual things such as monitor lizards, civets, African rock pythons, fish eagles (mother and a chick, from their nest!), catfish, button quails (that took all of one mouthful to consume) and young giraffes, which still always amazes me!
Yet for me, one of the most interesting trends I noted in a couple of young leopards was their thinking that they could catch buffalo. One young female, named Nkateko, that used to reside in our area pulled this stunt several times, and would find herself right in the middle of a herd of 300-400 buffalo stalking the calves. While a calf is definitely within the limits of what a leopard can catch, even a young leopard, the mere presence of 299 other buffalos in the area would surely be enough to stop them from even considering trying! Inevitably, the leopard would eventually be spotted and cause the herd to stampede after if before clambering-up the nearest tree for safety!
While I know that it was never the leopard’s intention to try and catch a buffalo on this occasion, one morning I watched with my heart in my throat as another young leopard, the gorgeous blue-eyed Thumbela, got herself into a position amidst a herd of buffalos that she almost didn’t get away from! We had spent a fair amount of time watching this leopard sleeping at her favourite waterhole, underneath her favourite log that kept her quite well concealed; even a nearby herd of zebras seemed a bit unsure of her presence, and were hesitant to come closer for a drink. With what seemed like a stalemate, I pulled out as a colleague approached the waterhole, but two minutes later, he radioed me to tell me I should perhaps come back, as a breeding herd of buffalos had just appeared in the distance, and knowing their behaviour, they were definitely not going to let a leopard get in the way of their drinking!
I joined Grant again, and we sat patiently and watched as the buffalo herd made their way closer, all the while Thumbela remained unmoved under her log. The first herd members arrived at the water and began drinking less than 10m from the leopard, and slowly more and more of the herd joined to quench their thirst. Thumbela was trying her best to remain unseen, but at the same time, she was also quite curious of this, and possibly looking for an opportunity of a rather large meal, so she slowly sat up and peered over the log at the buffalos drinking a couple of metres away from her.
It wasn't long before she quickly lay down again and tried her best to hide, as one of the herd’s large bulls came ambling past the log to get to the other side of the dam, and as he got closer to where Thumbela was still lying flat on the ground...5m...4m...3m...we all just sat and held our breaths, because if he were to suddenly spot her, he could easily just ram her against the log and crush her. I suspect Thumbela had the same thoughts, as when the buffalo got to within 1.5m of her, she lost her nerve, or made the wise decision (I’m not sure!!!) to RUN!
She was up in a flash, and as an equally quick reaction, the buffalo swung his horns to face this unknown threat! With amazing acrobatic agility, Thumbela was out of that dangerous predicament and running for her life...I also think most of the buffalo herd thought the same, as all of them turned and stampeded away from the water, in the same direction that Thumbela was running. It didn’t take long for the buffalos to eventually understand what this “threat” was, and when they realised that it was only a leopard, their initial defensive reaction turned into an offensive one, and some herd members swung around and started chasing the leopard!
Thumbela hadn’t really worked out her exit strategy too well, and after about 40m, she too realised the error of her ways, the most glaring of them being that she was running with the herd into an area that had no trees for her to jump into! The leopard spun around and went running back in the direction that she had just come from, and was now about 50m from the smallest of trees, but trees none-the-less!
As she ran for her life, not one but two buffalos managed to catch her with their horns, but luckily the impacts were fleeting and barely nudged her off course; she evaded one more set of horns successfully before springing up into the safety of a russet bushwillow just as a half a dozen buffalos gathered underneath! Thumbela sat catching her breath as we all sat nearby catching our own! It was a close call, but she had made it to the safety of the trees, and we hoped that this would be a lesson learnt for her...
...well, at least you would think! While I didn’t go see her, the other guides found her in the same area in the afternoon. Stalking a baby buffalo. In the middle of the very same buffalo herd that had almost trampled her in the morning! Needless to say, the afternoon ended with her sitting high up in a tree surrounded by buffalos! I guess she is lucky that all cats get nine lives!