Written by: Ben Coley
We believe that EcoTraining is about the small things. The mechanisms that have evolved over millennia know no bounds: the relationship between figs and their wasp pollinators, the unique adaptations of an antlion larva to locate its prey, and the fascinating behaviour exhibited by the polyandrous African jacana are just some of the jewels of knowledge awaiting a potential student on one of our courses.
But although this may be true, that doesn’t make witnessing interactions between Africa’s heavy hitters – the big cats – any less incredible.
Last week, Karongwe Game Reserve gave me a belated birthday present by letting us watch a fascinating interaction between lions and a leopardess protecting her cub. What happens in the bush under the cloak of darkness is a mystery to most, but occasionally we get the chance to watch the exploits of these key players in the light of day.
Lions and leopards are mortal enemies. Lions have strength both in physicality and in numbers, but what the leopard lacks in this department it makes up with stealth and agility. Both will kill each other and many young cubs meet their end at the hands of one of their carnivorous cousins.
For a mother leopard nurturing a cub, a run-in with lions often means that the end is nigh, but her lightning speed reactions and unparalleled tree climbing abilities might just be enough to save them. And by the time we arrived at the sighting, we found the majestic leopardess patrolling the treetops whilst her nemeses circled below.
Her footing was sure, and she almost mocked the comical attempts of the young lions far below her as they tried to scale the vertical trunk to reach her. She spat and growled like a Harley Davison on the starting grid, but knew better than to antagonise her much larger relatives.
Her lightweight frame allowed her to control the canopy, but the young lions were not easily deterred and continued to try their luck. This made for some great viewing as their facial expressions matched their frustration as their powerful limbs were nullified by their greater body mass and weak wrists. Failed attempts ended in a shower of bark and a somewhat unceremonious dismount. As usual, it is difficult not to anthropomorphise the events, but if ever there was a time that a lion looked embarrassed, this was it!
The leopardess, however, seemed distracted. Between bouts of snarling at her feline foes, she repeatedly turned her gaze towards a nearby fig tree.
Upon closer inspection we discovered a small cub of no more than six months old, sheltering in the upper reaches of its safe haven. Whilst we could hear no communication, their glances spoke a thousand words and the maternal bond easily bridged the gap between their refuges. Leopard cubs learn to climb from an early age and this skill can save a life. Despite balancing 10 metres from the ground, the cub looked sure-footed and it matched its mother’s aggression towards its pursuers with low growls that defied its size.
Despite several attempts, the lions knew they were beaten. Disdainfully they relinquished their spot on the battle field, slinking silently into the surrounding bush as the heat of the sun sapped their resolve.
The leopardess and her prodigy remained in their lofty sanctuaries watching the retreat of their antagonists until the coast was clear. The female then gracefully dismounted and moved to the shade of a nearby termite mound, but her terrified cub remained aloft.
As we knew that this particular female is not very relaxed around cars, we ethically felt obliged to leave the area to allow mother and cub to reunite and disappear back into the bush. It was an epic sighting for us, but just another day in the endless struggle for survival of Africa’s greatest icons.
The small things in the bush are fascinating, more so than many of you might realise, but some things are truly mesmerising. We all have our weaknesses, our addictions if you will, and mine is the leopard. After 10 years of guiding, five of which were spent in the Sabi Sands, the leopard capital of Southern Africa, I still get goosebumps at the thought of a flash of one of these beautiful creatures. For me, to see a mother and cub in a tree with hungry lions below is as good as it gets!