Tuesday, 5 July 2011

The tale of the leopardess and her breakfast

A honeymoon trip to South Africa and Mauritius could not be considered complete without a trip to one of the game parks! We were lucky enough to be staying at the Savanna Private Game Reserve which is situated in the Sabi Sand Reserve within the greater Kruger National Park, South Africa.

If you are thinking about doing a safari, I can't recommend the Savanna Private Game Reserve highly enough. Whilst a safari is all about seeing the animals, which we saw in abundance thanks to the quality of our guides and trackers, the actual lodge itself, the food and the staff were equally as amazing.

The gear!
I had packed a disturbingly large and heavy amount of camera equipment (half my baggage allowance in fact!) that had been lugged from airport to airport on this trip, and this was what it was all about! After agonising for some time, I finalised on my Nikon D3s, 70-200mm and a 2x tele-converter for our first trip out. Allie had the backup D300 and the 18-200mm. We were ready to roll!

The day started with a 5.45am wakeup call, some coffee and a biscuit before meeting the others who would be heading out with us.
Paddy driving on the right, James in the hot seat perched at the front
With Paddy - our trusty guide, James - the tracker and a topless Land Rover with a mini-grand stand that wouldn't have looked out of place at Wimbledon built on top of it that could go pretty much anywhere (and did!) we set off to see what we could find around the reserve.

Sunrise over Sabi Sands
With the sun just starting to rise, Paddy's first stop was a termite hill which a young leopardess has been calling home for the past few days. The leopardess, called Hlangisa (which means happy one) had previously caught an impala and had been tucking in to it before our arrival. The kill looked to have been about half eaten.

Hlangisa lazing around at sunrise
The impala, half eaten, laying near by
It’s around 7am and Hlangisa, the leopardess, is very sleepy and doesn't seem to have a care in the world, nor about us getting so close and taking a sticky beak.
Snooze time...
Much like a domestic cat that has been fed (only bigger and beautiful), she's not really interested in anything but sleeping (and who can blame her at 7am!), so we move on to search for other animals around the reserve and leave her to her morning nap.
We head off into the dawn to see what else we can find
There was plenty to be seen on the rest of the safari that day, some great food and wine for dinner and even better company around the table, but this entry is only going to discuss the story about Hlangisa, the sleepy leopardess, and her breakfast…
It's not all roughing it with James laying out a great spread for dusk drinks and nibbles
Silhouette as we watch the sun set over Sabi Sands
Night driving by spot light
A good nights sleep, a wake up call, a bit of a hang over (I personally blame Paddy's poison!) and some coffee and we were off again at 6am!

We headed out in a similar direction to the first day and Paddy decided we'd pay Hlangisa a visit on her hill to see if she was in a more playful mood.

Unbeknown to us a hyena had smelt the kill and moved into the area sometime before our arrival. It had already stolen the kill from Hlangisa and dragged it off the termite hill to a few metres away where it was proceeding to eat what is left of the impala.

Hyena eating impala
The sound of crunching bones as the hyena bites through both flesh and bones is all that can be heard in the quiet of the dawn.

Hlangisa looks on, but won't take on the hyena directly as hyenas are generally the stronger of the two animals when it comes to a one on one fight and she won't risk injury by attempting to fight off the hyena. She does watch intently however for any opportunities to steal back the kill or for any bits that drop off it that could be quickly snatched.

On top of the termite hill
Hlangisa watches on (left side)
Over the sound of crunching bones, two other hyenas can be heard to the north in the distance calling, but the hyena with the kill doesn't answer back obviously not wanting to share its meal!

Hyena listens intently to the other hyena calls
At a wider distance, two jackals can be seen stalking the area looking for scraps. They are very skittish animals and won't come close to the leopardess, the hyena or us!

Jackal roaming at a distance
The calls start to get closer and the hyena decides it's time to move the left overs to a safer place where it can dine without being disturbed and heads off in an easterly direction into the scrub of a nearby ravine.

The hyena picks up the impala remains... 
...and heads off toward the ravine
Hlangisa comes down off her termite hill and gives chase, all be it at a respectful distance. The jackals and leopardess follow the scent of the kill along the path the hyena has dragged it through the plain grasses looking for any titbits that may have fallen off whilst in transit. The morning is getting pretty exciting!

Hlangisa leaves her termite hill...
... and gives chase (all be it at a distance!)...
...and wanders rather close by so we get a good look at her
We follow the hyena into the scrub, as does Hlangisa, with the other hyena calls continuing to close in on our location.

The terrain is rather dense as we follow in the land rover and after a few attempts to directly follow the hyena, Paddy circles around so we can cross the ravine a little further up.

Into the ravine
We end up with the hyena eating the kill behind the land rover, Hlangisa watching intently from close by and us settling in to see what happens next with the other hyena's closing in.

The hyena suddenly looks up in a northerly direction as it has obviously detected something that we haven't noticed to the left of where it is sitting with the look of high alert on its face.

Hyena looks about
Likewise Hlangisa looks to be on edge staring in the same direction.

Hlangisa on edge
A rather loud rustling noise and suddenly a second larger male leopard bursts from the scrub at full speed chasing the hyena away, which was unfortunately too quick for me to catch with anything but the naked eye as it happened behind us and I only just saw it as turning.

This is unusual as normally a leopard will not take on a hyena, but this is a large male who has the element of surprise.

The hyena is momentarily scared off and the large male leopard, which Paddy tells us is named Kashane, picks up what is left of the kill and proceeds to carry it up the nearest tree at an astonishing pace given it is dragging half an impala in its mouth with it.

Snatch and grab!
Kashane climbs the tree with impala in mouth
Paddy later tells us that Kashane means 'he came from far'. Apparently he used to be called the 'Lisbon male', but then there were a few guests who thought he came from Portugal! Go figure...

Hlangisa and the hyena can do nothing but watch as the larger leopard, Kashane, settles in and gets stuck into the left over impala 5 or so metres above us.

Kashane in the tree
Getting our first good look at Kashane, the size difference between Hlangisa and Kashane is significant, with Kashane weighing in at somewhere around 100kg and having a significantly large head (with large teeth!) and muscles across the shoulder. This is one big leopard!

One big kitty!
Leopards are mainly solitary animals, and as such, the males won't generally share their kills with the females, and in fact will likely attack and possibly even kill another leopard if it gets too close.

The hyena wanders about below the tree, ever the optimist, hoping that some scraps will drop from the tree.

Hoping for some scraps
We observe this for a while before Kashane decides it's time to go for a wander and climbs back out of the tree leaving what is left of the impala hanging in the tree tops.

It's been a rather exciting morning! We head off back to camp for breakfast.

Heading back out for the afternoon/evening safari after a great late breakfast, lunch and snooze we hear over the radio from another group guide that while Kashane had left the tree and wandered off, Hlangisa no doubt thinking she could get back her breakfast, had climbed up and started to eat the kill in the same tree. Kashane subsequently returned and chased her into the top branches of the tree. We made haste to see what was happening ourselves, as two leopards up the same tree had a high likelihood of some kind of action!

It was dusk by this stage and James was manning the spot light on the front of the land rover.

Upon arrival we found another safari group watching and the single hyena now had company with a pack of hyenas now circling around the base of the tree.

One of the hyenas
Kashane was back up the tree sitting on his branch we saw him earlier on with the left overs and in the very tops of the tree, probably close to 10 metres up, we could see Hlangisa hiding although we could only really see her shadow and occasionally a flick of her tail in the high leafy tree tops.

Kashane munches on impala up the tree

I'm sure she was reflecting on the joys of lying in the morning sun the day before with her snack on the top of the termite hill… how things change!

The regular growls from Kashane up towards the tree tops when she moves or more likely tries to get a little more comfortable, shows that he was in no mood to play or share a meal, and so Hlangisa is forced to wait it out in the top of the tree!

By this time, Kashane was getting close to finishing off what was left of the kill. The impala's head was starting to wobble around quiet a lot as it dangled from the branch and looked like it was soon going to part company with what was left of the body. The hyenas could obviously sense this also, as the group started to get a little excited. The hyenas themselves make a kind of whooping laughing call when excited and we ended up being surrounded by a pack of almost ten hyenas making these strange laughing calls in the night. It was kind of surreal as they stalked around the tree and us just feet away.

The impalas head about to part company with the body
Kashane chewed away on flesh and bone, the crunching of which could be heard loud and clear and eventually he must have chewed his way through the last piece connecting the head to the body as the impalas head finally gave way to gravity and fell into the ravine below the tree. Trigger the pack of hyenas!

Hyena in the darkness @ 102400 ISO. D3S turns night into day!
The nearest hyena grabbed the head and ran off to the side and settled in to picking the remaining flesh off the head. Perhaps it should have gone a little further though, as one of the more dominant hyenas closed in on the spot and chased off the hyena that had retrieved the head.

Hyena runs off with the impala head

This was obviously the most dominant hyena about, as none of the other pack members would even approach. Interestingly enough, hyenas follow a strict matriarchal society where the ladies wear the pants ;)

The matriarch hyena then set off with the head and the rest of the hyenas back into the grass plain to the west where the fun had all started earlier in the day.

Matriarch hyena with other watching
We watched Kashane for some time more with Hlangisa perched precariously in the tree tops to see if she would attempt an escape, but it seems she was content to play the waiting game and bide her time until the larger male left again.

At this point we left and thus ends our viewing of this particular chain of events.

The moral of the story is… don't be lazy and make sure you take your breakfast up a tree so you can eat in peace!

Update: An email from Paddy has confirmed that Hlangisa has since been sighted and is in good health so must have eventually escaped the tree.

Savanna lodge

Google Maps recorded using MyTracks on my Nexus S
Savanna Private Game Reserve Safari Combined Map

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