Wildlife books will inform you that leopards are opportunistic animals and are predominantly Crepuscular hunters, i.e. hunting during dawn and dusk. Whilst this is their general behaviour, it is however not entirely accurate. At Londolozi, we regularly see leopards attempt to hunt during the day. On one particular day I witnessed how a hungry mother leopard went from opportunistic to desperate.
We were fortunate to have viewed the Mashaba female leopard three days prior; on that particular day she was not far from where she was known to be hiding cubs. After attempting to stalk some Impalas, she was spotted by the herd and their subsequent alarm calls alerted us and resulted in us fortunately finding her. After then observing her for a few hours attempting to hunt an Nyala cow, she eventually gave up and made her way back to the den site as the morning progressed.
Fast forward 72 hours (plus change). The evening approached and we set out on our drive. Tracker Bennet Mathonsi with his X-ray vision spotted the Mashaba female from at least 200 meters away. She was in an area far east of her territory and extremely far from the cubs. Having travelled so far, she had one thing on her mind; to hunt. We spent the better part of the afternoon with her, observing her stalking and moving from one herd of impala to the next. Over the course of about an hour she made several failed attempts on a scrub hare, female warthog and two impala ewes in separate herds. Female leopards raising young cubs have to produce milk for them, and the demand on their bodies is extremely high as a result, resulting in swift hunger between meals.
After watching her rehydrate at a shallow pan, we started to lose hope that she would catch something; these were now desperate times for her. We could tell she hadn’t eaten much – if anything – since we last saw her three days ago and her body was in desperate need of fuel to sustain milk production for the cubs.
She moved on from the pan making what was now a fifth attempt at hunting on a nearby bachelor herd of impalas. Due to the previous commotions, a single hyena was lurking behind her. No one could see the leopard now when all of a sudden we heard a squeal followed by a cacophany of frantic impala alarm calls. We raced to where it was coming from but we were not alone; the hyena was also rushing in, realising the opportunity for an easy meal. The leopard had taken down a young impala from out of a herd, but the hyena had got there at the same time that we did, and was busy trying to steal her kill. The Mashaba female let go and the impala ran off with the hyena still in chase. How bad can one leopard’s luck be? More missed opportunities? Desperate decisions now?
She subsequently lay down to rest under a fallen marula tree, not uncommon behaviour for leopards at this time of the day. Bennet, my guests and I decided to skip the usual drinks stop and stick with her. She rose from her brief rest and used that same Marula as a vantage point to scan the surrounds.
With nothing in sight, she started moving back in the direction of her core territory. We had looped around a large termite mound in predicting that she was going to use that to view her surrounds.
Suddenly, there in the nearby thicket was a grey duiker; we spotted it at the same time as she did. She was within 15 meters of the small antelope, it was now or never!
She gave chase and squeals from the thicket echoed all around us, she finally had her prey! Within 30 seconds, two hyenas came running in, forcing her to climb with a kicking duiker into a thorny, unstable acacia tree; uncomfortable but safe.
After a few minutes she caught her breath and started to feed. The sun set and whilst night crept in, we silently watched this well deserving mother leopard finally feed. A night I will never forget but a regular night in the life of a leopard.