It was an overcast day in the Timbavati when the staff at Umlani decided to get out into bush and explore the varying landscapes. Little did we know at the time that what we were about to be treated to an incredible glimpse into the life of Africa’s most elusive predator, the leopard.
It wasn’t long before we spotted the undeniable presence of a leopard’s tail in a canopy of a flourishing knobthorn tree in the distance. Pumped with excitement, the only thing left to do was head in it’s direction. We arrived knowing that we had her all to ourselves as the rest of the Timbavati guides were out with their guests marvelling at the sight of a male leopard feeding on an impala kill. Right in front of us was one of our well-known female leopards, Nyeleti (meaning star in Shangaan), carrying on with her daily activities as if we were not even there.
Late afternoons are the perfect time to find leopards because this is when one can start to observe the true nature of these amazing cats. They become active when the sun starts to sink below the horizon. This particular leopard is distinctly characterised by two dark blotches on either side of her bottom lip, allowing us to know exactly who she is and, as always, she put on a great show for us.
After gracefully descending the seemingly uncomfortable tree, she went on to meander through the veld. She moved from shrub to shrub, scent-marking, letting other female leopards know that this area is hers and advertising to males that she is in prime condition. Often, she would approach large trees, presumably with the intention of being able to survey the surrounding area for any prey she could successfully hunt.
Leopards move like liquid gold through the bush, using their senses to detect even the slightest hint of movement that may indicate the presence of an unfortunate victim. Nyeleti was showing us just how perfectly adapted these senses are by stopping dead in her tracks at any sign of movement with her ears pin-pointed in one direction and her eyes growing in size, fine tuning her incredible binocular vision.
She caught the scent of a kudu and went on to investigate before realising that this animal was a bit too big for even her own strength and so she backed away leaving the kudu to survive another day. Not long after this, she had an altercation with a hyena, which luckily didn’t end with any injuries. Nyeleti, did however, stand firm and managed to ward off the hyena until it submitted and ventured off into the twilight. It is not uncommon to see hyena trailing leopards in the hopes that they will be able to get a bite of the leopard’s kill.
The evening progressed and she was showing definite signs that a hunt was imminent. Even her beautiful physique was showing she needed to eat. We kept following her in anticipation that something epic might unfold in front of our eyes. Always alert, she moved further upslope along an eroded gully in search of prey only to be stopped by the irresistible presence of a puddle of water. She couldn’t help but indulge.
After her thirst was quenched she silently moved off with intention as if she knew exactly what lay ahead of her. This time she ascended a False Marula tree with eyes wide open and focused on something. As we moved our vehicle to see what had captured her attention, it became clear to us from the distinct alarm calls of a herd of impala. The impala, however, were not aware of her presence, it was only the sound of our vehicle that started them vocalising among each other. Nyeleti decided it was time and, in the blink of an eye, she had descended the tree and was hugging the ground in full stalk mode. She was so stealthy, that not even we could pick up her visual again. We sat for a while waiting silently, so that our presence wouldn’t have an influence on her attempts to hunt. Sufficient time had passed whereby a mutual decision was made to leave the sighting and let nature take its course.
Leopards are secretive by nature and are masters of stealth. This allows them to successfully survive in almost any environment. Finding them alone is not the easiest task, so having the opportunity to spend an evening with one of them is extremely special. We were lucky enough to get some insight into the secretive lives of these cats. It was three hours of absolute bliss and I’m sure the memory will remain vivid in our minds for many years to come.