Written by: Dominic Oldridge
One morning in June, while staying at Selous Impala Camp in Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve, we drove away from an incredible wild dog sighting, excited and chattering about what we had experienced. All of a sudden I then spotted a lion! After many false alarms, we expected it to maybe be an impala again, but this time I was right!
The sun was warming up. Having had their first feed during the early hours, one lioness dragged a zebra kill into the shade of a false umbrella tree, while the second lioness looked on from her resting place in long grass about 20 metres away, and a third older female lay some 50 metres on.
Suddenly we saw movement and spots up in the tree that was immediately above the zebra carcass and the first lioness. We couldn’t believe our eyes – she had dragged the meal directly under where two leopards must have escaped earlier, during the kill. And none of the lionesses seemed to know they were there!
The leopards – a large male with a smaller female – looked down. Then the male had enough and decided to take his chance. He came down vertically, landed softly and made a break for it; leaving his partner to fend for herself. Sure enough, it was a good judgement call because the lioness was too slow and all she could do was watch as he made his escape; avoiding all three of his enemies.
The female leopard watched her mate disappear into the distance and towards thicker bush. She was now stuck up the tree, with two of the lions looking up at her. After a growl and snarl of defiance, she calculated whether she could move further up into the canopy, while the lion below her was now guarding her every move. The stalemate continued, half an hour passed – lion below, leopard above.
Spread out and about 100 metres away, but coming closer, a troupe of baboon could be seen. Heads down, they were foraging the ground for food. The big male suddenly barked an alarm, and in a noisy commotion, the whole troupe bounded up into the nearest trees. The panic subsided when they finally felt safe from the three lions below. However, it was only then that they spotted the leopard – their greatest threat. Loud, intermittent alarm barks from the adult baboon made the youngsters scurry along the branches, while the big male baboon stayed watchful on the ground.
The second lion decided to stir and stroll up to the zebra carcass to begin feeding. During this time, she was watched by the other two lions, the leopard above her and the baboons in the nearby trees. The third older lioness then made her way slowly to the kill and the two of them rubbed heads in greeting before settling down in the shade of the leopard tree.
This had become all too much for the leopard, and the young female made her move, descended to a lower branch, looked down at the lions and surveyed her options.
She then made her escape! Plummeting vertically, she was off running. But the guard lion is after her, accelerating with great strides and threatening to overtake the leopard, who is sprinting for her life. The lion is huge compared with the fleeing leopard, and there’s no way she’ll outrun the bigger predator. With the lion less than five metres behind and catching fast, the leopard bolted up another tree, barely 35 feet from the original.
Safe again, the leopard watches on as her chaser retires and the other lions continue to feed and rest by their meal. It’s clear from the scars on her face and the shortened teeth that the senior lion has had a tough life. She even has a forked tongue, but she continues to feed on the zebra with relish.
Two and a half hours have now passed since the lion dragged the kill under the tree. A combination of the rising heat, full bellies and maybe two days of meals left on the zebra means the lion are losing interest in the young female leopard. At last she has enough space and time to descend safely and make good her escape. She trots confidently off, following the same path as her mate towards the thicker bush.
A short while later, some distance away, a soft throaty coughing can be heard the as one of the leopards calls for the other…