Wildlife | 28 January 2019
Nature has many faces, moments of exquisite beauty or tenderness that make your heart melt, but also moments of harsh reality. It has the ability of completely blowing us away like nothing else on earth, taking us on an emotional rollercoaster that leaves us drained by its intensity.
Yesterday was one such occasion for us.
We found a leopardess, the Fort Dam female, in the western most reaches of the reserve. She was on the move and actively hunting a warthog. We could see as she stalked that she was very skinny and needed a meal, but the wily warthog knew something dangerous was afoot and made its getaway. She began to move on, moving within a few feet of our vehicle giving us the most amazing view of her rosetted coat. Already we were all smiling! Getting such a fantastic look at one of these beautiful and secretive cats is always a truly wonderful experience, especially watching her attempt to hunt and get a feed she clearly needed.
She moved through the golden early morning sunlight and we could not have asked for a better photographic opportunity, but then she suddenly stopped dead in her tracks. Completely still, her attention was focused on a thicket a few hundred yards away. Whatever she had spotted, we couldn’t see. As we scoured the area with our binoculars trying to figure out what she had seen, we realized what had got her attention. The soft call of a young antelope came from within the thicket, a call usually heard when calling its mother. Young antelope are often left hidden by their mothers lying motionless and silent in dense vegetation while the adults move off to feed, returning later to suckle their young and move off with the herd. But there were no adults in sight, in fact after the warthog had run off, we had believed the leopard to be alone in this area.
She reacted immediately to the call, moving swiftly into the bush heading straight towards where the sound had come from. We needed to move quickly to
make sure we didn’t lose her. Skirting the thicket, we moved around towards higher ground, our best bet to find her again. As we rounded the thicket,
we saw movement to our left, a tiny kudu calf perhaps just days old. Even now it was still calling, but it had attracted the worst possible attention.
It was a surreal feeling as we sat there and knew what was going to happen. It was inevitable, for its mistake this young kudu was going to pay the ultimate price. There was movement in the bushes behind, the leopard moved into a patch of shadow waiting for the moment to strike as its unwitting prey moved towards it. It was going to happen any second and it would be quick.
And yet it wasn’t. The leopard pounced, grabbing its victim but then realizing it was completely helpless and unable to escape, she let it go again. She stood there with a paw on it, almost like giving it a hug and I felt my heart break.
It was the age-old game of cat and mouse. She was just playing with it and would do for some time. To us it can seem incredibly cruel, completely unnecessary.
But to her it is instinct, the thrill of the chase. Cruelty, mercy and self-pity feature neither for predator nor prey. Over the last few weeks we
have felt sorrow for this very same leopard after losing her very first litter of cubs. What happened to them will forever be a mystery, but presumably
they were killed by another predator, likewise out of instinct.
This is the harsh reality of nature. There can only be one winner in these situations, it is simply survival of the fittest. Carelessness from one became reward for another.
She caught it again then let it go and jumped away, coming in from a different angle she pounced once more onto her hapless victim. Once it was off its feet, she rolled onto her back next to it, paws in the air before bouncing back up and away.
Ultimately, the drama drew to its natural conclusion. She eventually put an end to her play, finished off her prey and dragged it into the cover of the thicket to feed.
It’s never an easy thing to witness something like this. For most of it we had sat quietly, each going through our own ride of emotions. Putting it all into words is hardly possible. Success for the leopard, but death for the kudu. The heartbreak of the way it happened, and yet the privilege of witnessing something so primal and unique. Some of us try to see it all objectively, which is obviously unbelievably difficult. Others may try to see it from both sides in an attempt to make it even,” It’s terrible for the prey but the predator must eat to survive.”
Either way, events like this will continue to unfold as they always have.
It is simply nature’s way.