Don’t Let Go!
This morning, we left Lion Camp for our game drive at 0600. As we drove east, Innocent looked at impala grazing contentedly and said: “There’s no leopard here. They are too relaxed.” He turned us around and headed west.
Shortly thereafter, we came upon our first kill viewing. Many people have told us that seeing a kill was a terrible thing for them. Horrifying to them.
We came upon a female leopard with a male impala’s throat in her mouth.
The impala, no longer twitching, was still breathing with the leopard gripping the throat. Before breathing stopped, a hyena showed up.
The hyena began eating the still breating impala with the leopard holding on! The hyena ripped the abdominal wall open and started guzzling the intestines and internal organs a la spaghetti.* Still the leopard hung on.
*The staff at the Cheetah Conservation Fund tell folks about cheetahs eating the abdominal contents and using the abdomial wall for a bowl but this was us seeing it first-hand. Nature up close and personal.
The hyena started eating the ribs-crunch, crunch, crunch. The leopard hung on.
Then to the pelvis.The leopard was like velcro, man. Then, as the hyena began to drag the carcass away, the leopard started growling loud enough for us to hear, but hung on. Quickly, the hyena bared her teeth and the leopard slowly backed away.
When you see a leopard and a hyena separately, they seem to be about equal in size. Not so! The female Zambian hyena (69.2 kg or 153 pounds) is about twice the size of the female leopard (37.2 kg or 82 pounds) and is much more fierce. Even whimpy male Zambian hyenas weigh in at 67.6 kg or 149 pounds. Since these women were only 2-3 meters apart, the size difference was apparent. Even IF the leopard could have stood up to the hyena and live, any injury would be a death sentence for her and her cub (as we later learned). Cheetahs and leopards need their legs for hunting. A leg injury means no running or climbing trees. No running or climbing trees means starvation. Cheetahs and leopards (females in this case) are cowards. A male leopard (63.1 kg or 139 pounds) maybe isn’t a coward, but I’d bet on the hyena any day.
The leopard moved back about 2-3 meters and laid down.
The hyena continued to eat the carcass, chewing through the thigh bones (femur) and hip bones. The sound of those bones cracking was intimidating. On and on the hyena went, eating and eating. Her face and forearms were red with blood. The leopard made a halfhearted attempt to get the hyena to move back but to no avail. There were at least 6 vehicles in the immediate area yet neither the hyena nor the leopard was fazed. At one point, the hyena grabbed the carcass and dragged it into heavy brush. The leopard couldn’t follow without great sacrifice. The leopard paced
sniffed the air and licked the blood off the dried grass and ate some organ scraps the hyena had not consumed.
In the copse, hyena was still consuming the carcass- LOUDLY.
We moved to the other side of the brush but we could see neither the hyena nor the carcass yet we could still hear the chewing. At this time, a juvenile male elephant, grazing on some small branches and brush nearby, smelled blood and having an intense dislike for hyenas, charged into the brush trumpeting all the way. The hyena went loping away with the elephant in hot pursuit as you’d expect to see it in a movie. As soon as this occurred, our leading lady dived into the copse and wasn’t seen again whilst we were there, another 10 minutes. We departed to find other fauna to watch. I hoped she had gotten out of the brush and had dragged the impala up a tree so she could eat the remains later.
As we were heading back to camp for breakfast, we happened across two videographers who were filming the leopard hunting and the hyena encounter for a possible documentary. They had been following the leopard for weeks and explained that the leopard had been in a sausage tree
when a herd of impala started grazing on fallen tree flowers beneath her.
She had dropped from the tree to kill the male impala. A rare sighting! That was the back story.
Still on the return journey to camp, we again came upon the videographers in a wadi. We approached and found the leopard female at the base of a tree vocalizing. We initially thought it was to call for her cub, which we didn’t know existed, but Innocent told us that could also be a territorial call warning other leopards that this is her territory. Her cub is 4-5 months old. It never came out. As of yet, we don’t know if the cub is alive or not. Mama had been on the hunt for food for two days with the cub home alone. We’ll hope it’s still alive.
The following day we came upon the female leopard up in a mahogany tree eating on the Impala carcass.
No sign of the cub as of three weeks later.
This whole event reminds me of the old ABC Wide World of Sports slogan: “The trill of victory, the agony of defeat.” The female leopard drops from a tree grabbing a male impala (thrill of victory). The hyena comes in and starts to devour the impala (agony of defeat). An elephant chases off the hyena leaving the carcass (thrill of victory for the leopard). Not finding her cub after getting the carcass (agony of defeat).
An awesome event to be sure. One I’ll always remember. Although the kill would be horrifying to some, to Jenny and me, it was an incredible experience. Nature-as it is in all species.