A Kalahari leopard sighting is high on the list of any enthusiastic nature photographer. But seeing a spotted cat in pursuit of equally fierce prey is a wildlife memory that Gerda and Willie van Schalkwyk will treasure forever.
On an overcast summer day driving north towards the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Borehole in Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Gerda and Willie van Schalkwyk stopped to photograph a striped kingfisher. Unfortunately the light was not conducive to bird photography, so they moved on. Immediately something caught their eye, a leopard moving in the distance on the far side of the Auob riverbed.
“We were so excited,” says Gerda. “By then we had been in Kgalagadi for almost 10 days and had not seen a single leopard. Leopards are the holy grail of the Kgalagadi – they’re solitary, secretive and elusive, and every sighting is special.
“Using the Kgalagadi Leopard Project’s information we later identified this leopard as Itumeleng – a female, two years old at the time of the sighting and commonly ranging from the areas of Rooibrak to Fourteenth Borehole. We followed Itumeleng as she moved about leisurely. She then began chasing something across the riverbed towards us… she was hunting a wild cat!”
She missed her target when it outran her from the other side of the Auob riverbed to a tree closer to where Gerda and Willie had parked.
Not deterred at her failure to capture the wild cat, Itumeleng continued her search across the breadth of the riverbed. She emerged from a thicket after being up in the tree, which she had investigated and also spray-marked.
“We watched as she went up another tree and then, all of a sudden, a thud and a flurry of activity. It was Itumeleng, who had tumbled from the top branches of a camelthorn tree with a wild cat. Her strength was superior to that of the small wild cat and she overpowered it. This time she succeeded,” says Gerda.
After suffocating the cat, the leopard walked away and lay down briefly to recover. Note the scratch on her left cheek – the cat had fought back bravely.
After resting awhile she returned to her kill and started playing with it, then soon moved it out of sight.
“We stayed with her as she walked around the area, then she settled behind a tree hidden from our view. In the end a jackal appeared and when its barking became too much she emerged with her prey, and carried it across the road and up the dune on the opposite side of the riverbed,” says Gerda.
Gerda and Willie found the encounter unexpected, and slightly disturbing. Gerda remembers asking herself: ‘Do cats hunt other cats?’ The two have since learnt that they do, and that Itumeleng has of late been seen often hunting them in the vicinity of Fourteenth Borehole. They are hoping there will still be a few wild cats around for their next visit to the Kgalagadi in January 2017.