I thought it would never happen. I was jinxed. Every tourist sees leopard in South Luangwa National Park. There are even more leopards here than lions. But after my first month living in the valley, I had seen neither hide nor hair of a leopard. Three weeks ago, when I was at work in the rural health centre, a leopard strolled along the edge of the lagoon outside the lodge where I am staying. I learned that Alice, a female leopard who has two cubs, is often spotted just a few hundred metres from the Luangwa River bridge at the entrance to the National Park. When passing “her” tree, I always glance over to check if she is lounging on a branch.
A family on holiday at the lodge went out on a game drive last night and saw three leopards, an adult and two grown up cubs. The leopard had used the cover of the safari vehicles to get closer to its intended prey, an impala. Cubs had been climbing up and down tree trunks and generally trying out stalking techniques. This morning, instead of going out on my own (Sunday is my day off from the clinic, though I am still on call for emergencies), the family kindly offered me a place in their converted Landrover Defender.
They were hoping to see lions, but we saw no big cats. We stopped for morning tea at Luangwa Wafwa, and then at 10:30 arrived at a clearing by the river. The lodge staff had set up a kitchen and dining area under a tree. We ate Sunday brunch (silver service) while listening to the hippos grunting to each other in the river.
We set off back to the lodge at about 11:15, driving on Riverside Way. We passed a family group of elephants under the shade of a group of trees, with a baby elephant lying down under his mother’s legs, taking a nap. After apologising for disturbing the elephants, we drove up to the main laterite road and saw a stationary vehicle, in full sun. The driver was trying to take a photo with a smartphone through the open window. Very strange, I thought.
Brian, the guide and driver, said, “Leopard, under the bush, 10 metres ahead, on the left.”
To see a leopard so close, in broad daylight, is very fortunate. Normally you have to be aware of the behaviour of other animals, such as baboons, who get very agitated when a leopard is at large. Their continuous screams and barks will let you know there is a leopard in the vicinity. Leopards usually lie along the branches of shady trees, where they are safe and can chill out. They also drag their prey up the tree to keep it safe from hyenas. So you can often spot a carcass hanging down from a branch, well before you see the leopard. The scouts are guided by tracks or spoor. They seem to have a sixth sense of what looks incongruous in the scenery – an outline, some movement in the grass or the smell of a kill. We got lucky.
These photographs are of Alice, the only named leopard in the National Park. Naturally, she was in the general area where I had been told to look for her. After ten minutes sitting in the shade, she got up and walked across the road, vanishing into thick bush. She was very quiet and made no coughing/barking noises (likened to the sound of an old saw cutting through wood), but was probably going for a drink and checking on the whereabouts of her cubs. It was a very special moment for me. I was no longer a “leopard virgin”.
At 4pm, we received word that Alice had killed a female impala about a kilometre from the lodge, so we drove there as fast as the track would allow. We parked and watched Alice eating in a shady copse of trees for 15 minutes, then left to allow other newly-arrived tourists to get a good view. The carcass was too heavy for her to lift into a tree, so normally she would split open the belly to remove the intestines and major internal organs. This was proving difficult for her.
On the way back to the lodge after an evening game drive, we saw that Alice had been joined by her two cubs. They were aged three months, with the male cub already bigger than the female. Although they are still suckling from Alice, they were trying to eat bits of impala under supervision.
A solitary hyena arrived on the scene. It had been attracted by the smell of death, and was checking out the situation, the safari vehicles, the lights, the number of leopards, doing a SWOT analysis. Now, one-on-one, Alice could have defeated the hyena in a fight, but if she were to be injured in the process, there would be no one to kill for her and the cubs until she recovered. Discretion was the better part of valor and Alice allowed the hyena to drag the remains of the impala corpse away.
The cubs skittered up a tree and stayed well out of harm’s way for ten minutes, until the hyena was fully occupied gorging itself. Alice cleaned herself up, called the cubs and the family climbed a more suitable tree to sleep in safety.