It was such a good feeling to be back in the bush again in Mashatu. All your senses are enlivened. The bush is a busy place with wildlife active wherever you look. Those familiar smells return. You can smell the dust and the wild sage.
“I learned that the richness of life is found in adventure … It develops self-reliance and independence. Life then teems with excitement. There is stagnation only in security.” ~ William O. Douglas
This post illustrates two encounters with leopardesses. We found the first female asleep on the ground in a gully. If we had not driven right up to her we would never have seen her lying there.
On the ground she was vulnerable but it was in the late afternoon so she had possibly come down from her arboreal resting place. Leopards often look as though they are asleep but they are aware of what is going on around them. The twitch of the ear and occasional flick of her tail suggested that she was just resting. Then all of a sudden a sound or a smell, neither of which we were aware of, roused her.
It took a few minutes to work out that it was neither food nor another predator after which she got up and started to wander through the brush on the edge of a large patch of wild sage. Leopards have long tails which are used in a variety of ways to express their mood, to communicate or for balance.
“Leopards epitomise independence, strength, cunning and self reliance. Their camouflage adds to their mystery, moving in the shadows and in the darkest hours.” ~ Mike Haworth
Now fully awake she was in full sensory mode walking through the bush without making a sound. There were also no squirrels, spur fowl or guineafowl to alert the world to her presence.
This leopardess stopped at what must have been an important anthill. She spent quite some time smelling all the messages left by previous passers by.
“The best things in life must come by effort from within, not by gifts from the outside.” – Fred Corson
We have learnt from leopards to sit quietly and just try and sense what is around us. She stood for many minutes just looking and listening. Those ears constantly moving and tracking sounds around her. As soon as something caught her attention her tail would start to flick.
The prominent white tip to the leopard’s tail is thought to exist so her cubs can follow her in thick bush and grass which can be above the cubs’ heads. The position and movement of a leopard’s tail tells a lot about its mood and intention. A lowered tail with the tip moving from side to side can signal attention and interest. A raised tail is like a white flag usually signals that she has given up on the hunt. The swift whip of a leopardess’ tail away from a cub, signals irritation. Of course when climbing trees, the tail is an important feature for balance.
If the ground is wet or she is on the hunt, a leopardess will often seek a spot off the ground which provides a better view, such as a fallen tree or anthill.
“Learn to depend upon yourself by doing things in accordance with your own thinking.” – Grenville Kleiser
In the afternoon, once a leopard has come down from a tree it might have slept in for most of the day, it will gather itself before moving off in search of prey. Just before moving off, a leopard will usually yawn a few times then stretch and scratch its claws on the tree.
The scratching of the claws on the tree trunk sharpens the claws, scrapes parasites off her paw pads which helps reduce infection and is thought to stretch the ligaments in the paws to ensure full flexibility. Leopards, like most cats, also have an interdigital gland, which they use to scent mark when they scratch trees.
On a separate occasion, around mid-morning, we found a leopardess and her adolescent cub up a large Mashatu tree on the bank of the Majale river. They seemed to be feeding on the remains of a carcass which we could not see. This female was instantly on high alert when she heard a troop of baboons approaching.
From her arboreal lookout she could locate the exact position of the baboons and the direction they were moving.
“Pick you battles. You do not have to show up to every argument you’re invited to.”~ Mandy Haley
The cub stopped feeding and also found a position from which to observe the potential approaching threat.
As soon the the leopardess assessed that the baboons were indeed coming toward them, she began to descend the massive Mashatu tree.
She assessed the baboons to be a clear threat. She left the cub up the tree. As she descended, she stopped to have a good look at the troop of baboons.
“Be selective in your battles, don’t make every problem a war.”~ anonymous
The last section of the tree was steep so she descended it front first. The baboons would easily be able to climb this massive Mashatu tree and having found the cub would mob it and the large male baboon would try to kill it.
Her posture says it all. She was well aware of the threat.
Leopards are independent self reliant and cunning ambush predators. They are also outnumbered by a troop of baboons which can kill a leopard. There are usually many large male baboons in a large troop and they are the greatest danger.
The tail twitching and low snarl showed her irritation towards the baboons. She would never have attacked the troop on the ground but she had a plan.
As the baboons got closer the leopardess moved off along the top of the Majale river bank and positioned herself in a thicket where the baboons would not be able to get to her. This was also a diversionary tactic to lead the baboons away from her cub in the Mashatu tree.
“You cannot change how people treat you or what they say about you. All you can do is change how you react to it.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi
As cunning, stealthy, self reliant and strong as leopards are, they do not have it all their own way. They are masters of camouflage and ambush but there are many eyes and ears in the bush. If it is not baboons harassing them during the day, it is squirrels letting the whole world know where the leopard is positioned. Spurfowl and guineafowl also make a racket when they spot a leopard. In areas where there are numerous impala, duiker and steenbok they are the preferred prey and baboons make up only a very low percentage of kills. After nightfall leopards come into their own and have a significant advantage in the hunt. Leopards occasionally hunt baboons at night. During leopard attacks baboons seek refuge in the tallest available trees and outer most branches which are difficult to access.
Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.
Baie dankie Frannie!
You have enjoyed some privileged views of these beautiful leopards. Together with the interesting information you have included, this is a delightful read.
Anne you are absolutely right! I have have many privileged views of leopards for which I am ever grateful. I never get tired of watching these beautiful solitary hunters.