Kenya

The Leopard, Her Cubs, and the Wildebeest Kill

SPortnoy_20150925_3726Peeking from behind the grooved flesh of the tree, two tiny blue eyes caught the sun. A speckled paw the size of a half-dollar with needle-sharp claws, latched on to the bark as it leaned against the base of a large branch. I could see the gentle curve of his plump, fuzzy tummy and I had to close my eyes against the cuteness overload that flooded through me.

His little head was straining upward, drawing my eye to a carcass his mother had skillfully wedged between two limbs five feet above it. His mother, a stunner of a leopard I’ll call Alice, was higher still, perched above us and looking at the four jeeps around her with minimal interest, the way we might look at passersby beneath a balcony.
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The tail of a sibling flashed by the head of the first cub and just as quickly disappeared.  The evening before, my guide, Ping from Mara Plains Camp where I was an invited guest, told me that she had two cubs, but it was always a crap shoot whether you’d see them from one day to the next. Cubs are the most vulnerable in their first year. They’re small and fragile and beloved by any number of predators. Thankfully, from the look of it, they’d made it another day.


We were privy to an important lesson; the cubs were being schooled. The mother was teaching her young ones to climb and to eat in a tree, but the cubs were struggling. They couldn’t navigate the branches successfully, and whether they climbed above or below, remained inches away from the carcass. The climbed about the limbs, anxious and hungry.

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Seeing her cubs distressed, Alice decided on a new strategy. Bridging herself between two limbs, she grabbed the neck of half eaten wildebeest in her mouth and with a powerful tug lifted it from its place and gently lowered it three feet and wedged it into another V of the tree. She did it with such precision and grace you’d swear her mouth had opposable thumbs. Then she climbed down the tree, landing at its base and sat beneath the kill. The cubs scurried down, taking refuge under some bushes at her feet.

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Rising up on her haunches, she grabbed the wildebeest once again and pulled it down, unceremoniously allowing the remains—a head, torso and some straggling entrails—to fall to the ground in a heap. She then began to drag it, her neck bulging with the effort, down a small incline, through an opening between two jeeps, up a hill and into the woods behind us. The cubs were besides themselves, excited to see the corpse within reach but  intimidated by the metal gauntlet our vehicles posed.  Together they huddled in a small open space of a gully.  One cub gathered its courage and galloped forward, scampering after his mother and leaving the other alone somewhat bewildered. Before the first cub could gain too much ground, the second rushed forward, low to the grown in a submissive posture, his little butt wiggling as he went.


Ping backed up the car, having a sense of where Alice was headed. We moved to a small clearing near the base of the woods and wouldn’t you know it, Alice appeared to our right dropping the kill.  The cubs pounced on it in an instant but she was only resting. Moments later, she began dragging it again, this time into the trees where we could not follow, all the while the cubs nipping at the wildebeest as they disappeared from sight.


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25 replies »

  1. Awesome work Susan…well done…u got a great opportunity to shoot in such lighting and more important is u got a clearance from the hero (chettah) to capture his chase….very rare to get such a chance…wonderful work…

  2. Wonderful set of images and narrative. What a privilege that must have been to witness these events and get photos of them too. I know from my own experience how difficult it can be to get shots of leopards in trees as the light is usually quite low. Keep uo the good work – I love seeing your work and hearing of your experiences.

    Asanta Sana

    Dave

    • Hi Dave- thank you. 🙂 it’s true, I was lucky in this case that the light was better than most circumstances. There were a lot of branches in the way for a good portion of the action which made it difficult to get a clear, encumbered shot, but it was amazing to see.

      • Hi Susan. I know just what you mean about branches getting in the way. There were a couple of leopards mating in the bushes – we could hear the roars as the process went on and knew that we were very close to them – but see them? Nope. What a fantastic opportunity that would have been to have witnessed something fairly rare.

  3. Wow…I mean just wow. Leopards are so elusive and you’ve got some cracking action shots here. Oh yes, and Leopard cubs are possibly the most adorable baby animals ever.

  4. During our lengthy tour of Africa, we had the opportunity to learn about leopards from Nils Kure, author of “Living with Leopards.” I found two things particularly interesting. 1. To spot leopards, look into the limbs of the tree and for a tail hanging down, something unique to leopards. 2. Leopards can pull their prey into trees but tend to do so by using trees that have trunks that are at an slant, making it easier for them to haul up their prey.
    As always, love your photos. The wildebeest photos brought back memories of the incredible, non-stop parade of zebra, Tomson’s gazelle, eland, and more.

Would love to hear from you!