When KT took the radio call alerting him of leopard tracks in the vicinity, my heart raced. Of the “Big Five” (elephants, lions, buffalo, rhinos, and leopards), leopards can be the most elusive, and consequently, the most challenging to “spot”. For one, the rosettes across their bodies make the perfect camouflage as they stealthly move through the tall grass; secondly, leopards are equally as comfortable in trees, and have been known to drag their kill into the branches to avoid any competition; and lastly, they are solitary animals, usually hunting solo unless the mother is raising her cubs.
KT quietly withdrew from the sleeping lions, and set the Land Cruiser on a new course. We off-roaded across the savanna with little regard for fields and streams, until KT hit the brakes and pointed to a patch of scrub about 100 meters to our left.
“Is it a leopard?” someone asked anxiously.
“No, but just as interesting,” he asserted. “Look through your binoculars and cameras and tell me what you see.”
I had trouble identifying the animal–even at 108mm focal length–although, KT’s telephoto vision was “spot on”. “Is it some kind of dog?” I asked.
“No,” answered KT. “Actually, this animal is more closely related to a cat. It’s a young hyena, and for some reason it’s by itself, unless the mother is nearby. And just as interesting, these animals are typically nocturnal, but this one is not. Let’s see what he’s up to.”
The Toyota crept toward the hyena causing it to retreat into higher grass. But eventually, curiosity got the better of him, and he slowly revealed himself.
KT killed the engine, and waited for our hyena cub to step out from his lair. It was an African stand-off. We sat patiently for minutes–both sides seemed unwilling to give an inch until KT started up the Land Cruiser. “We need to find our leopard,” he stated, and shifted into gear.
The moment we started to roll, the hyena slinked out of the grass,
finally showing his spots…
and seemingly “laughing” about his hide-and-seek victory.
We continued to track leopard prints through the savanna for another 15 minutes, when we happened across a pack of five African wild dogs prowling through the bush in search of their next meal,
led by its alpha male,
and alpha female.
As if on cue, a young lechwe leapt out from the cover of the brush in front of our truck…
followed by a wild dog chasing at its heels. The lechwe bounded away–zigzigging as it ran for its life. Soon after, we lost sight of it behind a mound of trees. KT gave chase. He gunned the Toyota and plunged it deep into the marsh till the front wheels lost traction. But he saved face by rocking us to-and-fro and eventually releasing us from the muck.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the mound, the alpha male was finishing off the lechwe…
with the help of his pack, who were waiting in the brush, ready to strike once the prey was delivered.
Wary of a crocodile attack, the wild dogs worked together to drag the carcass out of the water, all the while feasting on their kill…
(video is rated carniverous)
until the last traces of lechwe were consumed.
For many, what we witnessed was more than enough. It was an amazing morning filled with terror and excitement. Our hunger to locate a leopard was largely overshadowed by the wild dogs’ appetite. KT summed it up, stating, “What you are seeing here is very rare, indeed!”
“Which is exactly how the wild dogs like their lechwe prepared,” I mused.
But the day was far from finished. During our afternoon game drive, KT, acting on a tip, drove us to a different wild dogs’ den, where the alpha female of the pack had just given birth to a litter of four pups. Finding the den was easy, but would the mother let down her guard long enough to nurse them with us in the vicinity?
KT jockeyed for position. He cut through brush and mowed over saplings with the Land Cruiser to get us close enough for a decent view of the den, although partially obstructed by the wild dogs’ protective habitat.
And then the unexpected happened…
She leaned into the burrow and beckoned her younglings with a song of high-pitch yelps. She persuaded her brood by pulling out the first pup firmly at the scruff. The others followed willingly…
for a place at the dinner table,
while the vigilant dad growled and glared at us, showing us he was in charge.
Now, if only KT could get us to the hippo pond before sunset. Suddenly, there was little regard for all the ruts and sand grooves his tires found, or the sharp turns around the brush, and through a thicket with switches sweeping the sides of our canopy. We held on with our lives.
We could see the sun sinking below the grassline, and we knew it would be close, but thankfully, the hippos were still at play.
And then it was lights out for the rest of the Kalahari.