Leopards: Elusive, powerful, somewhat scary. One of the original BIG FIVE. A safari goers dream sighting.
There is something about a leopards amber eyes, the way he moves, the silkiness of his coat, the length of his whiskers, the pattern of his fur, the strength and athleticism that just draws people in and I am no exception.
With the leopard usually being the most difficult to see of the big five (and even more challenging to spend time with), imagine the absolute thrill of seeing a leopard cub!
I've been one of the lucky ones to catch many glimpses of leopard cubs.
But this is the tale of one sighting of an approximate 6 month old leopard cub from Sabi Sabi, South Africa, that gave us a peak into about 45 minutes of her day and her mom, known as Ntsumis, the hero.
I was on a group photographic workshop run by Wild-Eye. Our vehicle got the call that there was a leopard sighting and we were in the general vicinity of the sighting trying to find the leopard mom and cub.
Then from nowhere, we heard an ANGRY elephant bellow. It's an eerie sound that somehow touches you all the way to your bones. We could FEEL it as well as hear it.
Elephants are one of my favorite animals. I could sit in a herd for days on end and never get bored with watching and listening to them. Their social structure is fascinating. The sound the elephants make - even quiet walking and the sound of the grass being torn from the earth - keep me mesmerized. Everything about them fascinates me.
However, angry elephants are DANGEROUS elephants. The power behind them is enough to break trees and flip trucks. They can kill lions and throw buffalo into the air.
We drove around the corner and saw one elephant eating in the thick brush. We drove a bit further and we saw another elephant even deeper in the brush, at the moment, neither appeared angry.
.... and then we saw HER. A small 6 month old leopard cub. She skitted from the open grassy area back into the thick bush where the second elephant was eating.
There was a ruckus from the bush and a tree started shaking...
Where is she? WHERE IS SHE?
A glimpse of leopard spots thru the branches
Leaves shaking further up the tree
AND THE ELEPHANT
She had definitely caught his attention again
His trunk up high in the air poking into the branches of the tree trying to find her
And further up, branches rustling and moving...she's climbing further up
A glimpse of the spot pattern
The elephant getting angrier
A loud crunching sound and the tree stats to bed over from the weight of the elephant pushing it over
Adrenaline and fear in the car for the cub's life...
Looking for escape routes for her - as if somehow we could telepathically help her escape
Then from nowhere -mom came
Straight up the tree
Larger spots through the tree branches
More shaking... more pushing...
Then, the elephant backed of
I would have LOVED to have heard the conversation between the leopard mama and the elephant
What did she do?
A leopard is no threat to an elephant
We had no visual of what transpired in the thicket except that the elephant stopped trying to knock the tree down
And then mama and baby walked briskly out of the thicket
Phew... a relief that could be felt in the air
Can you imagine how scary that must have been for the leopard cub?
A huge elephant trunk pushing through those branches at her - smelling and snorting
Her normally secure footing in the tree being shaken by the elephant determined to knock the tree over
Confident by her mom's side again, we followed the pair thru the thickets of South Africa. It was getting dark and we didn't know if mom was going to go hunting or taking her to a new hiding place.
Leopards, although incredibly powerful are constantly in danger. The cubs more so, but even adults can be killed by lions, buffalo, a pack of hyena, and even a troop of baboons can kill and adult leopard.
Cubs can be easily killed by the above and also by male leopards. They also don't have the experience that an adult has to evade a pursuer.
It was getting very dark and even though the reserve allows spot lighting nocturnal animals, since she was so young, she could not be lit with artificial light.
It appeared that mama had hidden her to go hunting and we were gathering ourselves to leave also.
When all of a sudden, the title girl was back on the road, out of her hiding spot - and a distance behind her, we saw 2 hyenas approaching.
Hyenas will often follow other predators in hopes of stealing an easy meal. They would not hesitate for an instant to kill the young cub.
Even though hyenas killing a leopard cub is the natural way of life in the bush, it is something that no one in my vehicle wanted to witness. Some things in nature are so much harder to witness than others.
We held our breath - and you can hear in the video below..
the concern and relief when the cub scampered up a tall tree to safety. (Video courtesy of Gerry van de Walt of Wild-Eye.)
We had to back up the vehicle to allow nature to do what she was going to do and waited with bated breath - all we could see was the silhouette of the tree with the cub head and tail sticking out of the V in the tree.
We could also barely see the hyena and with a huge sense of relief, we saw them lose interest and leave the area.
We could continue our journey with the knowledge that the little cub had survived at least for one more night.
I don't know if this was an average 45 minutes for the cub, or if it was one of her more extreme hours... it makes me wonder - how much goes on in the wild that no one ever sees? How remarkable is it that any cubs survive to adulthood?
I follow the Sabi social channels and have not seen an update...but the awesome Ranger Graeme from Sabi Sabi read the story and messaged me with an update. The cub is doing well and is growing like crazy!!!!
As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts about this little leopard cub and a brief look into her life!
Did you like this safari tale?