If you visit the Kruger National Park enough times, the law of averages rules that at some point you will get to see a sighting exciting enough to dine out on for many years to come. If you’re very lucky, you may see something that very few people ever get to see. And maybe, if the stars align just right and the bones land in perfect sequence, you’ll be lucky enough to see something so extraordinary – barely believable almost – that it becomes Kruger folklore.
Next time you drive the gravel S28 from Crocodile Bridge towards Lower Sabie, look out for a large fever tree on your left, about seven kilometres along the road. Apart from its size, the tree is undistinguishable and, with the exception of some large birds’ nests in its branches, it is unlikely you’d ever give it more than a passing glance as you trundle past. But this is the tree, back in the late winter of 2009, that formed the centrepiece of this most bizarre episode.
My family and I were on an afternoon game drive in an open safari vehicle when the guide stopped to listen to a feverish VHF radio discussion of a sighting that was taking place nearby. When the transmission crackled off, our guide turned to us, visibly shocked. The information he had just gleaned must have been truly amazing, as he had to sit for a few seconds to gather himself before telling us what had apparently just transpired.
He struggled to find his words at first, but began thoughtfully, saying that in his entire life he had never heard of such an occurrence. From his tone alone, we knew that whatever had just happened must really be of some significance. As he explained in detail what the other guides had just reported, there were audible gasps from many of us in the back.
When he asked whether we all wanted to go and take a look, the voracious response nearly knocked him backwards. We would have run there if we had to.
The cluster of cars and other safari vehicles all parked alongside the fever tree gave the position away before we had even arrived. As we pulled up, we caught a brief glimpse of the leopard that had caused all the fuss, just as it slunk away into the bush to seek some solitude from the growing audience of shocked onlookers.
There, in the boughs of that fever tree, we could clearly see the impala draped over one of the larger branches a metre or so from the fork where the branch meets the trunk. And lying prone over the same branch, closer to the fork, was the limp carcass of the cheetah.
In my 20 years of being involved with the private safari industry in East and Southern Africa, while having once heard rumours of something vaguely similar, I had never seen anything quite like this.
The guide who had earlier reported the sighting over the radio had, incredibly, seen the entire episode unfold in front of him and his guests. They had watched the cheetah successfully hunt and capture the impala ewe. Having taken it down and suffocated it, the cheetah did not take too much time to rest and immediately began to eat from the rear end of the impala. In the next instant a leopard appeared, drawn to the commotion of the kill. Being the perennial opportunist, it ambushed, caught and killed the cheetah.
Remarkably, the leopard first dragged the impala up into the branches of the fever tree. Then, once safely slung over a large limb away from other potential competitors, it returned to the ground for the cheetah and hauled that up into the branches as well, stowing it alongside – but not on top of – the already-stored booty.
Looking at the two lifeless carcasses hanging from the tree, it was interesting to note that the leopard had lodged the impala specifically in a place that would allow room for the easy placement of the cheetah straight afterwards. Given the considerable amount of energy that a leopard expends hauling a carcass into a tree to prevent it being stolen by scavengers, it would not be far-fetched to deduce that this leopard may well have intended to eat the cheetah in addition to the impala.
We returned to the sighting early the following morning. To our great surprise the leopard was in the tree, repositioning and eating the impala carcass. Only the impala seemed to have been fed on. The cheetah, at least from our viewpoint, appeared to have been untouched – although others have reported seeing some exposed flesh on the side of the cheetah’s torso, most likely from the plucking of fluff off the skin that is so typical of leopard behaviour.
A little later that morning, I am told, the leopard simply tipped the cheetah from the tree onto the ground below, where it no doubt became hyena fodder.
Of course, we were far from the sole witnesses to this extraordinary sighting. Being in one of the busiest sections of the park, and playing out over multiple days, many visitors were able to say that they too got to see the famous cheetah and impala in the tree episode.
One such visitor – a well-known South African cricket commentator – still laments that the only time she ever saw a cheetah in Kruger was when it was hanging lifeless from the fork of a tree!
We were incalculably fortunate to have seen something like this; something so extraordinary and so implausible that, were it not for the photographs as evidence, few would believe it ever happened. It just emphasises the undeniable importance of places like the Kruger National Park that provide a stage for the continuance of natural dramas – like the leopard that killed the cheetah that killed the impala – that make up the rich and unpredictable tapestry of life in the bush.
This story was originally published in 101 Kruger Tales – a collection of 101 jaw-dropping stories as complied by Jeff Gordon and first published by Leadwood Publishing and distributed by Struik Nature, an imprint of Penguin Random House. The author of this particular story, Brian Gardiner, was born in Zimbabwe, where he developed a deep love for the bush. Working in the safari and hospitality industries, together with his family he has lived and worked in virtually every East and Southern African country, spanning continents and oceans too, with managerial positions in far-flung places like the Belize rainforest, Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls and the atolls of Maldives.
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