November 23, 2012 – Chobe National Park
When you think about the vastness of the Chobe National Park and the small number of wild leopards and lions actually living there, it feels like nothing short of a miracle that we see them at all. That’s a key reason to use an experienced guide with deep-rooted knowledge of the area and the specific territories of the big cats living within it. The guides should be good trackers who can read a lot into a paw print. If you are doing a “self-drive” and don’t know the area, you would be well-served to pack lots of good luck charms in your knapsack.
We spent the morning “in the hills” tracking the Mother Leopard. No sign of her or the cubs but we did have a decent amount of tracks to decipher. Gwist noticed that the mother’s tracks included some drag marks – it appeared she had made another kill. As I have mentioned before, being in the National Park prevented us from going off-road to follow her trail, so our tracking sometimes only gets us so far. Then other factors come into play, those being intention, persistence and of course, maybe a bit of our own luck. Gary Player once said, “the more I practice, the luckier I get”. So for the last two weeks we have been intensely practicing/training our eyes to pick up the slightest movement or flicker of color on a pale yellow landscape which is only beginning to green-up for spring. We felt like we were literally on the Mother’s tail, despite not yet seeing it, or her.
We crossed paths with “our” two male lions that morning on their own marking/scouting mission. Whenever there is a bit of rain, the big cats need to remark their territories. That means a lot of peeing. Lions also use their loud echoing roars as a way to audibly mark their territory. You can hear a lion’s roar from over five miles away (and that’s with the human ear, I am assuming the other cats probably can hear it from further away).
After a break for lunch, Gwist decided we should circle back to the area where we had found the Mother Leopard’s drag marks. We were driving very slowly, six eyeballs scanning the trees, the bushes and the road. All of a sudden I yelled “STOP, back-up!”. I surprised myself at my own assertiveness given that Evan and I had been fooled countless numbers of times by stumps, termite mounds and tree branches that we swore were big cats in disguise. I felt certain that I had seen a flicker of white in the bushes. I had, in fact, caught the white underside of a leopard cub tail jumping in the heavy brush. Low and behold, we had found the Mother Leopard and her TWO cubs! This was the same mother and young female that we had seen yesterday, now joined by the shy male. They were deep in a thicket with their kill. Our hard work had finally paid off in multiple LEOPARDS. We spent the balance of the afternoon with the family. It was a bit frustrating that we couldn’t get closer but there were times when the cubs ventured out of the thicket and played. In these rare moments, I wished they were a month or two older than the 5-6 months that they were, just so that they would be a tad bit taller than the yellow grass they played in.
All of a sudden, Gwist yells out “HYENA!”. From the far side of the thicket a healthy adult hyena was fast approaching. The cubs took off in opposite directions – the male up a very small tree and the female across the road towards a much larger tree. We couldn’t see the mother in the dense brush but heard her snarling. The next sound coming out of the brush was the crunching of bones…
The hyena had found the leopards’ kill. The Mother Leopard was now up in one of the big trees – there was nothing more she could do until the hyena decided to move on. The hyena ate in the thicket for a bit and then rested in the tall grass, though ever vigilant. Never completely relaxing, it continued to pick up its head and look for other predators moving into the area. You start to appreciate how the survival mechanism of “fight or flight” gets imprinted on one’s DNA.
We felt very fortunate to be able to stay in one place for long periods of time. It allowed us to observe the larger dynamic occurring in the bush. This might have proven more challenging if there were other guests in our vehicle.
The hyena eventually lumbered off and the three cats came down out of their respective trees and reconnected as a family. In the meantime we had lots of other vehicles stopping to check out our scene. We finished the day basically where we started it and enjoyed a beautiful sunset before heading out of the Park.