A leopard's last leap

By Ranger, Victoria Craddock

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If you’re one of those

people that likes to while away hours of the day watching wildlife videos, it’s likely you have encountered the YouTube video that MalaMala posted on the 2nd of December 2021. If you are not, we suggest you watch it before you read any further as this blog serves to give a bit of background to the murder of a male leopard at the paws of the Kambula pride (warning, the content of the video is brutal).

On the morning of the 30th of November, 14 lions from the Kambula pride were found in the company of a Gowrie male. Having gorged themselves on two buffaloes the previous day, rangers expected to find them lazing about in the same area they were left, shaded by a tree somewhere along Ma 4lbs Drive (pronounced ‘ma four pounds drive’). When the rangers arrived in the afternoon, they discovered that the lions had moved. A well-educated guess, informed by the knowledge of lions needing to drink after a meal, prompted Ranger Piet to extend his search to the nearest water point, Paddy’s Pools. Knowledge truly is power when searching for wildlife, and 12 of the sub-adult lions were found scattered within a 200 metre radius just west of Paddy’s Pools. Some of the lions rested, while others (the sub-adult males), busied themselves with boisterous play.

For the first 10 minutes, two vehicles enjoyed a sighting of just lions. It was only when a third ranger approached from a different direction that the male leopard was spotted. The individual, since identified as the leopard loosely referred to as the ‘Marthly’ male, appeared cool, calm, and collected, trusting that his years of experience had informed his choice of tree: one that was an adequate retreat from a pride of lions.

Given that the leopard was treed with lions nearby, and judging by his relaxed demeanor, it seems probable that the lions had chased the leopard up the marula tree earlier that day before losing interest. Experienced leopards tend to possess a certain savvy in tense situations, this explains why the leopard initially appeared unperturbed, even in unwelcome company. Though experienced leopards are generally composed in the face of danger, they seldom hang around longer than necessary. As soon as a gap presents itself, a leopard will evacuate the area of danger. The execution of this compulsion proved fatal for this male as the sounds his claws made on the bark attracted the attention of the lions who immediately gave chase. The leopard made a beeline for the closest tree and, by the skin of his teeth, he ascended it. Several lions girdled the base of the tree, while others began climbing. Realising his inadequate choice of arboreal safety, the male propelled himself from the tree onto the ground. Presumably, he intended to seek refuge in a more robust, lion-proof tree; unfortunately in less than 5 metres, the lions had encircled him and were taking turns at delivering lethal blows.

In the instance of so many lions making contact with a leopard (or anything smaller than a buffalo, for that matter), that animal has no chance of escaping its fate. To quote Ranger Piet “by this point, the writing was on the wall”. Having said that, the leopard did not give up without a fight. Rolling onto his back, the leopard exposed his formidable claws and killing jaws to his attackers and landed some weighty blows on his perpetrators. So valiant were his efforts that it took about a quarter of an hour before a lioness finished the deed with asphyxiation. In this time, the leopard and the lions moved around so much that the rangers in the sighting were constantly having to increase the distance between themselves and the unfolding onslaught.

We salute you, ‘Marthly’ male. You were a leopard we saw infrequently, an aloof enigma on MalaMala. Your presence on the property kept us humble as sightings of you were often brief, reminding us never to take our habituated individuals for granted. Rest well Mpho (Shangaan term used to show respect to an older male in the community).

Travelling to MalaMala