November 22, 2012 – Chobe National Park
Today I get to share a photograph that still brings a smile to my face. I vividly recall the connectedness that comes with being face to face with this young leopard cub. I found her deep chestnut eyes mesmerizing.
We were now three days into our Chobe trip without a single leopard sighting and I was beginning to wonder if our luck at the “rosette” wheel had finally run out. We left camp again at 5:30am and headed first to Harvey’s Pans with the hope of seeing the lions and cubs that we had missed the afternoon before. Unfortunately for us, the Pans were void of lions, though we did see some vultures and hyenas feeding on another dead baby elephant. I don’t know when or how it died.
We continued to explore some new Pans and were through Warthog Valley when Gwist got a call on the radio that a mother leopard and cub had just been sighted – in the exact spot we had passed early in the morning! Gwist dropped his head in his hands – I think his frustration equaled ours. Evan asked if we were far from the leopards. While the answer was “Yes”, Gwist said it was reported they were calm, though on the move. He then threw the vehicle in reverse and floored it, “abandoning the law” and going 60 kilometers per hour (speed limit in the Park is 40). We arrived at our destination to find three vehicles already viewing the leopards. The leopards were about 50 to 60 yards away from us and still moving. I have to admit that I didn’t think we had a chance in hell of seeing them up close – fortunately for us, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The cub decided to pose on a termite mound and it only got better from there.
Question: Why did the Mother Leopard cross the road?
Answer: I have absolutely no idea, but I’m glad she decided to do it in front of OUR vehicle.
Question: When is “bigger” not better?
Answer: When a leopard cub is so darn close to your vehicle you can (theoretically) touch it AND take its picture!
Evan was getting some great shots with his 400mm lens, despite our distance from the mother and cub. I was struggling with my 200mm to get anything that I thought worthwhile, but then my luck changed and it became abundantly clear to me that “bigger is not always better”… In the midst of jockeying for vehicular position, we found ourselves in the exact spot where the mother leopard decided to cross the road. The mother crossed first. I think the young female cub was somewhat afraid of all the cameras firing away so she hesitated. We found ourselves face to face with this little one who appeared to be 5-6 months old. Evan had stopped shooting because she was too close for his lens! I, selfishly, took three more shots and then decided I was being unfair to the little one. It was only a minute or two at most after I stopped shooting that she joined her mother on the other side of the road. In those quiet moments we breathed in her wild beauty and innocence and rejoiced at our good fortune.
Gwist told us that this mother was approximately 8 years old and that in addition to the female cub there was also a male sibling from the same litter who was quite shy. Gwist guessed that he was probably still back at the family’s hideout. The female cub was now about 50 yards ahead of the mother when we saw a hyena approaching. We thought the hyena was close to where we estimated the cub to be, though we couldn’t see her. Evan and I worried that the cub was in imminent danger. Gwist assured us that our fears were unfounded and that even a cub of this size was not in serious danger… with only one hyena… Fortunately for all involved, he was right. We were then treated to some mother/daughter poses on a weathered tree trunk. Soon thereafter, the mother and daughter split up – we assumed the mother was planning to hunt and she was sending the young one home. We waited to see if we would see the mother again, but did not.
When things had quieted down, Gwist shared an incredible story – it’s too bad there were no filmmakers in Chobe eight years ago to capture this tale for the big screen. This same mother leopard had been orphaned along with two siblings (a male and female, all at six months of age) when their mother was killed by a lion. Despite the odds, these three cubs survived to adulthood and are alive today in the Park, living in contiguous territories.
With the leopards no longer in view, we headed to President’s Camp for brunch. We had gotten in the habit of staying out all day – so always brought a midday meal with us. President’s Camp is named in honor of Botswana’s first President, Sir Seretse Khama who served in that role from 1966 (the year in which Botswana gained complete independence from England) until his death in 1980. President’s Camp is no more than a cleared area along the river, but apparently it was a favorite camping spot for Sir Seretse Khama during his visits to the Park, which he nationalized in 1968. Today, Ian Khama, Sir Seretse’s son, is the 4th President of the country and it’s my understanding that he is a strong supporter of Botswana wildlife and the big cats. Our brunches at President’s Camp were generally pretty quiet, plenty of time to eat and caffeinate, “check the tires”, and catch an occasional fish eagle fly-by.
We spent our afternoon back in search of the mother leopard. While we saw leopard tracks just past the 2000 year old Baobab tree and close to another dead elephant, we did not see the leopard. At one point we came upon a lone baby impala bleating for its mother. The sight was heart-wrenching because the louder the baby cried, the more attention he was calling to himself. For all practical purposes, we should have stayed with the impala but instead Gwist chose to circle the Ridge. At one point Evan heard an adult impala snorting – usually the sign that it is calling attention to an intruder. Gwist did not believe Evan’s ears. We then caught sight of a tail – we think the white of a leopard’s tail. While we couldn’t be certain given the thick brush amongst the rock outcroppings, we believe the leopard had made an impala kill. It was now close to 7pm and we needed to be leaving the Park for the night but feeling like the Rosette Wheel was back in our favor. Tomorrow we will be putting all our money on the number #3 – hoping to find the Leopard Trio of mother, daughter AND son.