Written by Ben Coley
As a guide the most satisfying sightings are usually those that involve interaction with members of different species. It is these interactions that act like the scaffolding that keeps an ecosystem in check and ensures that balance is maintained. It is also a perfect opportunity to witness some incredible behaviour that is rarely seen in the bush and normally resigned to documentaries that have been filmed over long periods of time. For students, it is sightings like these that will whet their appetites for careers in the bush as well as challenge their minds to truly realise the complexities that bind the natural environment together.
To witness any interactions is a pleasure but Christmas came early in Makalai on this particular day, with the Bushwise bush gods delivering us a sighting of epic proportions. We were one of 2 vehicles following up on fresh lion tracks when the call came in that they had been spotted. As we arrived at the sighting we were met by a very animated guide gesturing wildly at a nearby Jackalberry tree. Unsure of the cause of the commotion, we cast our eyes skyward to see a magnificent male leopard in the branches next to the remains of his warthog kill. Below him circled 2 sub adult lions deep in thought as to how best to steal this easy meal!
The leopard prowled his arboreal refuge, exchanging snarls and growls as the scavenging lions beneath him. The young female seemed more adventurous than her brother and started to ascend the tree towards the warthog whilst the leopard’s deep warnings increased in volume. Not known for their tree climbing skills, the lioness had various failed attempts but the lure of a free lunch enabled her to slowly figure out the best route and it was not long until she had clawed her way up this verticle hurdle.
Once in the tree, the leopard knew that it only had 2 chances. To take the carcass to the higher and smaller branches that could not support the lionesses larger weight, or to abandon the meal in favour of safety! Not much of the kill remained and thus discretion was deemed the better part of valour and the leopard chose to make a hasty retreat, dismounting the tree with his usual grace and poise before disappearing into the undergrowth.
The lioness struggled to maneuver herself and the kill from the tangle of branches and ultimately this culminated in her dropping the majority of the meat. Unfortunately for her, this landed right next to her waiting brother who quickly busied himself with finishing what remained. Lions are not known for their preference to share food, and thus the lioness, despite her efforts, would see none of this… However, she was at least able to rescue a leg and trotter that would have given her some reward for her dare-devil escapades in securing the kill!
For the students with us on the vehicle, this was probably the highlight of their safari. To see 2 of Africa’s apex predators interact with one another helped to cement much of the information they had learnt over the last 5 months. From population dynamics, predator/prey relationships, inter and intra-specific competition, ecological niches to physical adaptations and sightings procedures, this had it all. However, despite the wonderful learning opportunity, more than anything, this sighting showed the students that all the hard work and graft, long hours and early mornings were well worth it to see natural behaviour such as this. A life in the guiding industry is born out of a passion for observing wildlife and if ever there was a sighting to illustrate what wonders lie ahead in their careers, this was it!
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